The confluence of unprecedented wildfires raging through California coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic have created the perfect storm of disastrous conditions for firefighters, farmworkers and millions of others forced to work outdoors.
With fire season only just beginning, a record 2.5 million acres have already been burned, covering large swaths of the state in clouds of smoke and ash. Firefighters and first responders battling the fires at the forefront are risking their lives racing to put out intense blazes while breathing in toxic fumes.
Our hearts go out to all of our heroes putting themselves in the line of fire, and to all of our heroes on the frontlines of the pandemic who continue to keep our state running.
As we reported two weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers have been left without the proper protective equipment to shield themselves from the virus and smoke, threatening the long-term health of a population already devastated by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, thousands of businesses accustomed to operating indoors have been struggling to reopen with outdoor operations in response to guidance from state and local government and health officials to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Workers at restaurants, nail salons, gyms and museums, among many others, are also now having to grapple with health risks on both fronts.
On August 20, Cal/OSHA sent an announcement reminding employers to take precautions to protect outdoor employees from wildfire smoke. According to the release, “The greatest hazard comes from breathing fine particles in the air (called PM2.5), which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma or other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing. These types of respiratory conditions also make the effects of COVID-19 more severe.”
Under the emergency regulation to protect employees from wildfire smoke, which was issued in July of last year, employers must communicate the dangers associated with exposure to smoke to their employees and take precautions to protect them, such as moving operations indoors or providing protective equipment such as N-95 masks.
As Cal/OSHA struggles to enforce regulations due to budget constraints, we must do all we can to remind employers of their obligations to protect their employees, and to remind employees they have the right to hold their employers accountable. Their lives depend on it.