Employers: Protect Workers from Wildfire Smoke

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As wildfires burn through the western United States, employees may be dealing with physical ailments and emotional trauma related to smoke inhalation. It is important for employers to understand the effects of smoke on employees and take appropriate steps to protect workers.

We've gathered articles on the wildfires and the effects of smoke on workers from SHRM Online and other trusted media outlets.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Through Emergency and Disaster]

Smoke Inhalation on Farms

Farmers in Washington state are trying to save their crops but some farm workers' hours are being cut. One farmer said he has been sending his workers home around noon. Although they wear masks, they are having trouble dealing with smoke inhalation: tight chests, itchy eyes and dry throats. Farmers were already dealing with a labor shortage, and the fires have caused more challenges by delaying the harvest on perishable crops like melons and peppers.

(NPR)

Psychological Impact on Workers

Wildfires are unpredictable and dangerous, and many residents of the western United States and Canada have dealt with the devastating effects of fires in the past. Psychologists say that the smoke from wildfires can be a trigger of past trauma and can cause anxiety, particularly for employees who work outdoors. Thus, employers should be aware of the emotional impact that smoke inhalation has on such workers.

Wildfires can cause depression for workers who earn their living by exerting themselves in the outdoors, said Heather McEachern, a psychologist in Kelowna, Canada.

(The Kelowna Daily Courier)

Cal/OSHA Stresses Worker Safety

The smoke from wildfires causes hazards for workers because it contains damaging chemicals, gases and fine particles. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) warns that related hazards will continue even after fires are extinguished. Employers should ensure workers have the appropriate protective equipment and that they are providing safety training to workers in areas affected by wildfires.

(California Department of Industrial Relations)

Workers May Have Leave Rights

Employers should note that workers who are injured or ill because of smoke inhalation or other wildfire-related causes may be entitled to take a leave of absence or paid sick leave. Employees may also be able to take time off to care for sick or injured family members. In states such as California, many local jurisdictions have their own leave rules—in addition to federal and state laws—that employers must follow.

(SHRM Online)

Make Sure Workers Are Properly Paid

In addition to following applicable leave laws, employers in regions affected by wildfires must be sure to pay workers properly when they are working alternative or reduced schedules. Different rules apply, depending on whether workers are nonexempt or exempt from overtime pay regulations.

(SHRM Online)

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