California Wildfire Season a Long One for Employers

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By Paige Smith

California employers in areas hit by wildfires were urged by the state to protect workers from smoke hazards Nov. 9 as the deadly Camp Fire continued to spread in the northern part of the state.

A number of corporations have manufacturing facilities in the vicinity of the fire, including FedEx Corp., Watsco Inc., Central Garden and Pet Co., Farmer Bros. Co., and Vulcan Materials Co.

The wildfire smoke advisory, the fifth the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has issued in just over a year, was in reaction to the Camp Fire, Cal/OSHA spokesman Frank Polizzi told Bloomberg Law. Cal/OSHA hadn’t issued any wildfire smoke advisories from 2010 to October 2017, according to the agency’s site.

The advisory warns employers that “special precautions must be taken to protect workers from hazards from wildfire smoke.” Wildfire smoke harms people who inhale small particles, as well as those who have pre-existing health conditions.

“Ultimately we want to protect workers and make sure employers know their responsibilities,” Polizzi said. “The smoke could be a real hazard, so how do you handle that?”

The Camp Fire has killed five people, according to local officials. It has burned 70,000 acres in Butte County and is only 5 percent contained, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection data from the morning of Nov. 9. The fire started the day before and threatens 15,000 structures. More than 2,300 fire personnel are battling the blaze, according to CAL FIRE data. CAL FIRE didn’t immediately respond to a request for a comment.

Cal/OSHA hasn’t fielded any employee complaints related to the Camp Fire but wanted to proactively issue the advisory and follow the event through the cleanup phase, in which workers are also at risk, Polizzi said.

“The air could be considered harmful, and that’s when certain Cal/OSHA regulations might be in place,” he said.

“Our thoughts are with those affected by the wildfire evacuations in California, including our team members who we are staying in contact with to help ensure their safety,” FedEx spokesperson Jen Caccavo told Bloomberg Law in an email statement. “While some operations and service will be impacted by the evacuation order, we have contingency plans in place to lessen the impact on service.”

None of the other companies immediately responded to a request for a comment.

A Hot Risk

Wildfire smoke exposure risk is currently covered under Cal/OSHA standards generally, but Polizzi said that the agency’s Health Effects Advisory Committee is looking to make those standards more specific to protecting employees from wildfire smoke, following the state’s prolific October 2017 fires.

“The committee consensus is that a specialized advisory committee should be formed to look into the issue,” he said. “We just always do what we can do to be proactive.”

The committee hopes to convene in 2019, Polizzi said.

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