wildfire smoke

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries plans to adopt an emergency rule regulating farm work in wildfire smoke.

Washington regulators are proposing farms alter schedules or hand out masks to filter wildfire smoke even if the air quality remains at a level the Environment Protection Agency calls "acceptable."

The rule could be in place by the end of June and would be triggered when the federal Air Quality Index reaches 69, on a scale of 0 to 500. At 69, the air may be risky for children, the elderly, diabetics and people with heart or lung problems, according to the EPA.

California, which already regulates working in wildlife smoke, has a threshold of 151. Oregon regulators have proposed a rule triggered at 101. The index measures the concentration of particulate matter.

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries cites studies linking particulate matter to deaths. Scientists haven't found any level of smoke that's "safe," according to the Department of Ecology.

Eastern Washington farmer Art Swannack, a Whitman  County commissioner, said farmers and workers know to get out of hazardous air. L&I has proposed an impractical rule that will force farms to stockpile respirators that will quickly get clogged by dust anyway, he said.

"I think they're going overboard," Swannack said. "I'd like to see commonsense in this agency and do something reasonable, instead of overreaching rules."

The United Farm Workers and UFW Foundation petitioned for a rule last fall after wildfire smoke blanketed the region. L&I hasn't proposed a permanent rule, but has put together an emergency rule. The rule will apply to other outdoor workers in addition to farmworkers.

Employers will have to monitor air quality. When the air hits 69 on the federal index or 101 on a state index, employers must control exposure to smoke.

The first option will be moving workers indoors or into vehicles. If that's not feasible, work may have to be moved or rescheduled. Workers may have to labor less intensely and have more rest breaks.

Workers who labor in smoke for more than an hour a shift must be provided respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, such as N95 masks.

Under the emergency rule, workers don't have to actually wear the masks. In a permanent rule, employers may be held responsible for seeing that masks are worn, according to L&I.

California's threshold of 151 matches the EPA's minimum level for air quality that may be unhealthy for members of the general public. At 69, the concentration of particulate matter is less than half as much as at 151. Oregon is considering a standard that falls roughly in between.

At a presentation in April, L&I highlighted studies of urban pollution worldwide by Chinese researchers and another commissioned by the World Health Organization to support its air-quality guidelines.

L&I occupational physician Nicholas Reul said last week that setting the threshold at 69 will "align with science and other advisories" to sensitive populations.

Short-term exposures to smoke are hazardous, he said. L&I has tried to write a rule that will allow workers to continue working safely, he said.

"We know in the absence of a rule that could be harder for workers," Reul said. 

The Washington Farm Bureau argues L&I has moved from protecting workers to safeguarding the public, in the process imposing unfair burdens on employers.

"You can't make everything a workplace issue," Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller said.

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