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Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

Six ways to protect employees from wildfire smoke

With this year’s unprecedented wildfire season, wildfire smoke has become a pressing health concern for both the public and workplaces across Canada.

Wildfire smoke is a nasty and complex brew of chemicals, gases and fine particles. It can travel great distances, reduce air quality significantly, and cause alarming health effects when inhaled.

When it comes to workplace safety, outdoor workers (e.g. agriculture, lawn maintenance and landscaping, retail and hospitality, transportation and delivery) are most likely to suffer; however, indoor workers may also experience health effects because wildfire smoke can seep into buildings.

Some workers (whether working outdoors or indoors) are at higher risk for complications. This includes persons with pre-existing health conditions (respiratory, cardiovascular system, cancer or diabetes), which can worsen with smoke exposure, as well as older individuals and pregnant workers.

Wildfires are anticipated to continue for the remainder of the summer, and to increase in intensity, severity, size and duration in future due to climate change and other factors. It’s time to get proactive in protecting our employees from exposure to wildfire smoke. Below are six ways to do that. But first, a closer look at the health effects of wildfire smoke.

A dizzying array of health effects

Depending on the individual and the level of exposure, wildfire smoke can produce:

  • mild health effects – headaches, cough, eye, nose and throat irritation, and brain fog (which can impact safety)
  • serious effects – chest pains, severe cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and heart palpitations
  • extreme effects – heart attack, stroke, and even premature death

According to Health Canada, the greatest risk to health comes from the fine particles (PM2.5) in the smoke, which can enter the lungs and bloodstream and affect organs.

6 ways to keep employees safe

  1. Monitor air quality frequently. Air quality can shift over a matter of hours. Canada’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is an important tool for determining when your control measures should kick in. The AQHI measures various air pollutants, including PM2.5, on a scale of 1-10+, and is grouped into four health risk categories:
    • 1-3 = low health risk
    • 4-6 = moderate health risk
    • 7-10 = high health risk
    • 10 + = very high health risk

    Not all employees will experience air quality the same. Some may begin to feel health effects even at the moderate level.

  2. Educate employees, supervisors and managers on the health risks associated with wildfire smoke, how to identify symptoms and what action to take, and what procedures you have in place to protect workers.
  3. Work with at risk employees to determine how best to protect them from wildlife smoke based on their doctor’s recommendations. Under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, employers must accommodate the needs of a worker with a disability up to the point of undue hardship.
  4. Update your emergency response procedures. Workers with severe symptoms from wildfire smoke need immediate medical attention. Be sure everyone knows the steps involved.
  5. Develop control measures to protect outdoor employees.
    • Provide N95 respirators along with detailed instructions on fit and use. (Surgical and cloth masks are ineffective.) Snugly fit N95s can reduce exposure to the PM2.5 in wildfire smoke significantly but cannot block gases. Since gases can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and airways, more advanced respiratory protection may be required.
      The downside of wearing a snugly fit mask or respirator is that breathing can be more difficult, which is why having other strategies for reducing exposure is critical. Pregnant workers and at risk employees with existing health conditions should talk to their doctor before wearing masks
    • Reschedule outdoor work until air quality improves or reduce the length of shifts
    • Reduce physical exertion and pace of work, both of which accelerate breathing and inhalation of polluted air.
    • Increase the number of breaks for employees away from the smoke, in air-conditioned and filtered buildings or vehicles.
    • Ensure supervisors monitor employees for signs of smoke-related health effects.
    • Make sure you have a heat stress program in place. Wildfire smoke and hot weather go hand in hand and can have a cumulative impact on workers’ health. (See 5 ways to prevent heat stress).
  6. Take steps to protect indoor employees from smoke polluted air.
    • Ensure your HVAC system is well-maintained, and uses the highest efficiency air filter possible, ideally, a MERV 13 or higher.
    • Work with your HVAC provider to temporarily limit fresh air intake; remember, that fresh air intake should be increased in the fall and winter months to help prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses.
    • Use a HEPA air purifier to eliminate smoke pollution not captured by the HVAC system.
    • Allow employees to work from home if they feel safer.

How WSPS can help

Connect with a WSPS occupational hygienist for guidance, including indoor air quality assessments.

Find out more about air quality and wildfire smoke

The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.

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Categorized in: WSPS