Unprecedented wildfires raging in California are leaving enormous devastation in several areas with many other areas receiving lots of smoke. Smoke is a complex mixture of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, trace minerals, and other chemicals. The individual compounds present in smoke number in the thousands depending on what materials are being burned.
Most healthy adults will recover quickly from smoke exposure and will not suffer long-term health consequences. However, certain sensitive populations, such as those with cardiopulmonary illnesses, may experience more severe acute and chronic symptoms. The most common advisory issued during a smoke episode is to stay indoors, however, many people need to work outdoors.
When performing work where exposure to wildfire smoke may be present, N95 particulate filtering facepiece respirators or respiratory protection devices need to be used. Approved respirators must be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), with the words “NIOSH” and the designation “N95” or “P100” appearing on the filter material. Please refer to Appendix B: Protect Your Lungs from Wildfire Smoke – Fact Sheet from California Department of Public Health Appendix B: Protect Your Lungs from Wildfire Smoke – Fact Sheet from California Department of Public Health describes what type of respirators are required and gives basic training.
Use of respirators by workers generally must be under a comprehensive, OSHA-compliant respiratory protection program. These programs include medical evaluation of employees to ensure that it is safe and appropriate for them to use respirators, individual fit testing to select a model and size that fit and training on respirator use. However, in emergency situations such as smoke events, where the occupational particulate standards are not expected to be exceeded, the OSHA respiratory protection standard permits employers to allow voluntary use of N95 or other approved disposable filtering facepiece respirators without requiring a medical evaluation or fit test. Employees must be provided with Appendix D of the federal OSHA respiratory protection (or for workplaces under Cal/OSHA jurisdiction this is available at CalOSHA Appendix D.)
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