Salem, OR — State workplace and public health officials are urging employers to stop or delay outdoor work activity where they can and take other reasonable steps to protect workers when air quality reaches the “unhealthy” zone, or worse.
Employers are responsible for providing safe and healthy workplaces, and recognizing and addressing hazards to workers—including unsafe air quality that is expected to continue through the weekend, say officials at Oregon Occupational Safety and Health (Oregon OSHA) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA).
That responsibility includes:
- Closing outdoor work activity when air quality in an area becomes “unhealthy,” or reaches an Air Quality Index of at least 151.
- Allowing workers with underlying health conditions to stay home.
- Re-arranging work schedules, hours and tasks in a way that enables workers to get relief from smoky outdoor air.
- Providing N95 masks, where and when appropriate, and informing workers of their proper use and care. This
Oregon OSHA video walks employers and workers through those procedures.
Moreover, employers must be mindful that workers who have families in areas that have been directed to prepare to evacuate may need to stay home from work to help their families with those preparations.
“During this incredibly challenging and evolving emergency, we are encouraging employers—particularly those with outdoor operations—to take all reasonable and necessary precautions and steps to ensure the safety of their employees,” said Michael Wood, administrator for Oregon OSHA.
Such outdoor operations include farming harvests, construction and those in which outdoor activities require heavy and prolonged exertion. This is because exertion results in a higher respiratory rate that will increase harmful pollutant exposure and increase the risk of adverse health effects. Moreover, current conditions combine pollution from wildfire smoke with increased ambient temperatures in some areas. Heat and air pollution both affect lung and heart health and could have additive adverse effects on workers.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many outdoor workers to more routinely use face coverings to protect themselves and others from the virus, face masks, face shields and face coverings are not acceptable replacements for improved air quality, said Dean Sidelinger, M.D., M.S.Ed., health officer and state epidemiologist at the OHA Public Health Division.
Sidelinger added that increased pollution has been associated with a higher risk of respiratory infection, which has serious implications during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially important for Oregon’s worker population of which a major part is Hispanic/Latinx, a group that has experienced disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19 infection than people from other ethnic backgrounds.
“This makes this important and sizable population of our workforce potentially more vulnerable to the adverse effects of combined wildfire smoke and COVID-19 risks,” Sidelinger said.
Workers are encouraged to raise health and safety issues with employers, including through their safety committees. Workers who are worried or believe their concerns are not being addressed may
file a complaint with Oregon OSHA.
Employers also are encouraged to check the state’s
Air Quality Index (AQI) Map and
air quality ratings at the beginning of a shift and every hour into the shift to ensure workers are not working in “unhealthy” or worse conditions.
Indoor air quality may also become a concern. Employers and workers are encouraged to check a building’s ventilation system to make sure it has received routine maintenance, such as filter changes.
Oregon OSHA also offers other resources to help employers and workers assess and address hazards, including air quality issues. They include
consultation services and
Other resources include: