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Wildfires prompt adoption of rule protecting California workers from smoky air

Droves of Sonoma County residents wore white respirator masks over their faces last November as noxious smoke from the Camp fire 100 miles to the north cast a dark pall over the Bay Area, creating the foulest air ever recorded in the region.

As a direct result of that pollution, California employers are now required to protect all workers - except for those in closed buildings with filtered air - from wildfire smoke whenever the air is officially deemed unhealthy to breathe.

The emergency regulation, rushed into effect Monday, gives employers three choices: relocate workers to an area with cleaner air; move them into enclosed buildings or vehicles; or provide them with respirators, such as the N95 masks popular last year, for voluntary use.

“We want to make sure we have protections in place for the wildfire season,” said Erica Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Industrial Relations, noting that new work safety rules often take a year or more to establish.

Steve Dutton, a west Sonoma County grape grower, said he was fully supportive of the new rule.

While most farm work can’t be moved inside and workers often can’t be moved away from smoky air, Dutton said he offered N95 masks to all of his employees in 2018 and during the October 2017 North Bay wildfires.

“That’s what we do for sure,” said Dutton, who is president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “It totally makes sense.”

The 11-page rule, adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, came in response to a petition submitted in December by labor advocates who said California’s catastrophic wildfires in 2018 and other recent years “demonstrate the need for protection for workers” whose jobs expose them to unhealthy air.

The petition called for protection of workers in agriculture, construction, landscaping, maintenance and commercial delivery, as well as those involved in evacuations, such as nurses and educators, but the rule applies to all work performed in smoke-fouled air, including open shops or buildings.

An air quality index of 151, defined as unhealthy - meaning everyone may begin to experience adverse health effects - triggers the mandates. Last November, the index indicated unhealthy air for 12 straight days over the North Bay and sometimes far beyond in California.

Employers are required to track the index, calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency and posted online at airnow.gov, which measures fine particles, the primary pollutant in wildfire smoke, as well as ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide and other chemicals.

The California Labor Federation, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and Worksafe, a nonprofit dedicated to worker well-being, petitioned for the new rule.

On Tuesday, most of California, including Santa Rosa, was expected to have good or moderate air quality under 100, except for the greater Los Angeles area, where many communities had forecasts well above 100 and four were over 151.

Smoke from the deadly Camp fire impacted 8 million people in 20 counties, and John Balmes, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said it posed a formidable health threat, “pretty much like cigarette smoke, minus the nicotine.”

In November, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said the air all the way to Butte County was among the most polluted in the world and the worst recorded in the Bay Area in more than 20 years of measurements.

Experts recommended staying indoors as much as possible, avoiding outdoor exercise and putting a portable air cleaner in the bedroom, where people spend most of their time.

Air purifiers and masks were sold out or in short supply at stores across the region.

Experts have raised questions about the efficacy of N95 masks, noting they do not adequately protect men with beards or fit children, whose faces are too small.

The rule says that respirators designed to filter out small particles will not protect people from gases or vapors.

Wood smoke alone carries high levels of particulates that can be harmful to children and people with respiratory and cardiac conditions. When buildings and vehicles are consumed by fire, as they were here in 2017 and last fall in Butte County, contaminants like phosgene, toluene, styrene and dioxins go up in smoke.

The state safety board’s ruling noted that wildfire smoke can spread thousands of miles from its source, and temperature inversions exacerbate pollution by trapping foul air close to the ground.

Smoke from the Milepost 97 fire in southern Oregon filtered into the Bay Area last weekend but is no longer here, the regional air quality management district said.

But with vegetation now dried out and some of the hottest days of the year still in store - along with the specter of dry winds that can propel wildfires - the wait for another span of smoky days in the area is unlikely to be long.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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