As massive wildfires threaten lives and properties across California, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health reminded employers of the hazards posed by wildfire smoke. All workers in areas where smoke is present are at risk. Wildfire smoke contains tiny particles, gases and chemicals that can cause severe harm to the health of anyone who is exposed. Many workers' compensation claims typically follow the fire season every year.
The fine particles in the smoke pose the most severe threat because they are inhaled during normal breathing and then collect in the lungs where they reduce lung function. This can cause or exacerbate asthma, and worsen existing lung and heart conditions. The typical symptoms include difficulty breathing, wheezing and excessive coughing.
Cal/OSHA's guidelines to protect workers include engineering controls such as ventilation systems that filter the air and administrative controls that limit the time that workers are exposed to smoke. Approved respiratory equipment must be provided to outdoor workers, and employers must note that breathing through respirators could bring on heat stress. For that reason, workers must learn to recognize the signs of heat-related illness in themselves and co-workers.
California workers who suffered any wildfire smoke-related harm must seek medical attention as soon as possible to avoid permanent lung damage. The workers' compensation insurance program will cover the costs of all medical examinations, treatment and medication. An experienced attorney can assist with the complicated claims process and might obtain compensation for a portion of lost wages for workers who suffered temporary disability.