California Wildfire Health Hazards and OSHA Warnings

EH&S News, NES Safety Topic – October 26, 2017
Written by: Brittiny Harris, NES, Inc.

Wildfires Create Smoke Inhalation Hazards

California is dealing with one of the most disastrous fire seasons in its history, and with these fires come serious smoke inhalation hazards.

The loss of life is tragic, and the loss of property is extreme. Beyond these concerns, fires have ravaged many California cities and surrounding areas, spewing huge amounts of smoke into the atmosphere and covering surfaces in a thick layer of toxic ash. Smoke inhalation hazards are a prominent problem that firefighters (and firefighters’ support personnel), cleanup crews, industrial hygienists, private citizens, and all others in the affected regions are dealing with and will continue to encounter as a result of these wildfires.

Many of these smoke inhalation hazards are created not only from the burning trees and grass but from burning houses. As they burn, houses produce highly dangerous gases, chemicals, and fine particles that can cause severe health issues if inhaled. The paint, metal, batteries, and many more products commonly found in and around houses create dangerous fumes causing serious smoke inhalation hazards for employees trying to contain the fire and for residents in the area.

Given the massive scope of the 2017 California wildfires, a tremendous amount of smoke and ash has been released into the atmosphere. It is therefore important to realize that prevailing winds can carry significantly dangerous quantities of smoke tens and even hundreds of miles from its originating source.

OSHA Warns About Smoke Inhalation Hazards

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has taken action to advise employers on how to protect their employees from smoke inhalation hazards and from the painful side effects of the ash toxins. OSHA advocates three different methods to protect people who are close to the fire and dealing with smoke inhalation hazards.

Smoke Hazard Safety Measures

Engineering Controls

OSHA’s first recommendation is to always have engineering controls in place. These include keeping indoor areas smoke free with clean air from ventilation systems. The general population has been advised to adjust air-conditioning units and use car vent systems to recirculate the air in order to avoid allowing outside air into the car.

Administrative Controls

The next line of defense endorsed by OSHA is administrative controls. When smoke inhalation hazards are present, keep employees, children, and the general population around the affected areas indoors. Limit time spent outside whenever possible.

Personal Protective Equipment

OSHA also recommends employees use personal protective equipment (PPE), specifically respirators along with any barriers that can be used between your skin and the hazardous smoke.

OSHA does specify that respirators are only needed if the air is designated to be “unhealthy”, “very unhealthy”, or “hazardous” according to California Code of Regulations (CCR) Title 8 §5141 General Industry Safety Orders. N95s disposable respirators through P100s respirators are not required to be fit-tested, but they do come with user instructions and are a valued option for PPE. OSHA urges respirator users to shave facial hair and to avoid wearing a hat over the straps of the mask in order for it to fit correctly. OSHA, however, does recognize that the respirators do not protect against exposure to gases, vapors, oils, pesticides, and other chemicals. It should also be noted that the respirators do not provide oxygen, they only filter out harmful particles; because of this, there is a higher risk of heat illness among those who already have trouble breathing.

OSHA cautions employees who are using a respirator to always be aware of how they are feeling while using the respirator. If the employee is feeling dizzy, faint, lightheaded, nauseous, or disoriented in any way, he or she should remove the respirator, proceed to a safer area, and get medical attention. Employees are advised to use a new respirator every day and dispose of dirty respirators and any respirators that become hard to breathe through.

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