Keeping Your Workers Safe When Air Quality Isn't

The Canadian wildfires are still burning, and while the smoke might have dissipated in the U.S., long-term effects can hang around.
By Kim Ritchie
July 13, 2023

Kim Ritchie, Vice President, Canada, ISN

Construction Executive Q&A

What risks do wildfires and poor air quality pose to workers?

Exposure to smoke caused by wildfires can have significant health risks, especially for those with preexisting medical conditions. Smoke exposure and poor air quality can trigger immediate effects such as coughing, difficulty breathing and irritation of the throat, eyes and lungs. However, despite smoke dissipating, it could have long-term health complications with cardiovascular impacts, such as heart attacks and stroke.

With the lasting impacts caused by exposure to wildfire smoke and poor air quality, it's essential for organizations to look out for their workers’ long-term health.

How can contractors determine when to cease work?

Contractors must monitor the air quality index (AQI) closely and consider outdoor conditions to determine when to cease work. When AQI values are above 150, air quality is considered unhealthy for everyone. However, when AQI values surpass 300, the air quality becomes hazardous and poses a threat to those outdoors. During these periods, contractors should take extra precautions to ensure the safety of their workforce and consider ceasing all work activities.

Why must contractors protect their workers during wildfires, despite the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA not having mandates on when outdoor work should cease due to hazardous air quality?

While there are no federal-level regulations specific to wildfire smoke, every employer should work to provide a safe workplace for its employees. With an increased focus on corporate social responsibility and ESG in recent years, more organizations are turning their attention toward protecting worker wellbeing throughout their business.

Prioritizing worker safety is such a critical element of an ESG strategy because it demonstrates an organizational commitment to protect the safety of employees in the workplace. Not only does it demonstrate positive business practices, but the failure to give proper attention to the safety of workers could have significant financial and reputational consequences.

What steps should be taken by contractors to maintain worker safety when air quality is poor?

When smoke causes poor air quality, contractors should take immediate action to address the safety of their workforce. Contractors may limit employees’ exposure to poor quality air and encourage workers to stay indoors and take several breaks. Levels of strenuous activity should also be reduced, if possible, because the inhalation rate is much higher with this type of activity.

For work continuing outdoors, contractors should provide proper respiratory protection equipment for workers. Even for indoor areas, organizations should use high-efficiency air filters when possible. If work can be rescheduled to alternative hours or locations with improved air quality, that is a recommended action.

What actions can workers take to protect themselves during wildfires?

Workers can prioritize their safety during wildfires by staying informed about fire risks and air quality as a result of local conditions. By checking forecasts regularly and staying up to date on risks in the area, workers can make timely decisions and take appropriate action to protect themselves and others. While organizations have a responsibility to consider the safety of their workers, it’s important that individual workers also do their part to protect themselves. Planning ahead as much as possible will help contractors and workers reduce the risk of encountering hazardous conditions on work sites.

by Kim Ritchie
Kim Ritchie - Vice President, Canada at ISN

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