California Pushes Worker Safety in Wake of Deadly Wildfires

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By David McAfee

As fires continue to rage in the northern part of California, other areas are starting to clean up the destruction left behind and the state is urging workers to take precautions.

The state is ramping up efforts to spread safety awareness to emergency responders going into fire-torn areas, but also is prepping relief workers and ordinary employees heading into areas where neighborhoods once stood.

That’s where workers could be exposed to both smoke and ashes containing “chemicals, gases, and fine particles that really can affect your health,” Erika Monterroza from the state’s Department of Industrial Relations, told Bloomberg Environment.

The owner and operator of Napa, Calif.-based Napa Valley Steaming, which specializes in natural disaster and fire cleanup, said it’s still too early to begin cleaning up because of residual smoke and ashes.

“We certainly want to help with the cleanup and get out there and get going, but I think it’s a little too early now,” owner James Hicks told Bloomberg Environment Oct. 17. “I think we’re going to try to get out there tonight and do some stuff, but it’s pretty smoky today.”

Hicks added that smoke, which can contain dangerous particles, was a factor in determining when his team can safely start cleaning up after a fire.

“Even with the masks, just getting out there and working it, it’s still not the best,” he said.

Hicks also said that his workers collect, filter, and discharge water safely when they begin cleaning fire retardant off of structures. Workers also will wear full respirators, as they do for other jobs.

“They’re just worried about people going in there without respirators, cleaning stuff, and just letting the water run down the storm drains,” Hicks told Bloomberg Environment. “We just want to help get people back to normal.”

Ventilation for Workers

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health sent a wildfire safety notice Oct. 13 to farm labor contractors and the Heat Illness Prevention Network, a group that includes worker advocacy organizations and industry and labor associations. The division sent a follow-up notice Oct. 14 telling employers where to get free respirator masks.

“We want to make sure to get that information online and out to folks, as well, because that also requires some special protection,” Monterroza said. Cal/OSHA is doing its “utmost to get information out to employers to advise them that these are special circumstances” and that they need to update their safety plans.

Cal/OSHA recommends employers use filtered ventilation systems in indoor work areas, limit time that employees work outdoors, and provide masks certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“They also have to make sure not only that they’re ensuring that the workers are using them appropriately, but they have to monitor the workers that are using them,” Monterroza said. “It takes a little bit more work to breathe, so that means that especially for those that suffer from asthma, or that have heart problems or other health problems, perhaps they need to take other measures with them.”

She added that employers also need to be sure to give workers frequent breaks, especially if they’re working in the heat or doing heavy work.

The California Chamber of Commerce, which counts Walt Disney Corp. and Microsoft among its 14,000 members, also instructed employers on how to plan ahead during emergencies.

“Employers must remember their obligations to provide a safe workplace,” it said in a statement. “Cal/OSHA is advising employers to take special precautions to protect workers from hazards from wildfire smoke.”

Monterroza noted that Cal/OSHA is finalizing additional educational materials on cleanup “in the next day or two.”

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