Dangerous smoke levels in the East spark calls for more worker protections

Labor groups say the situation also underscores a need for universal paid sick leave.
New York City had the worst air quality in the world because of wildfires. / Photo: Shutterstock

The smoke that seeped down from Canadian wildfires to blanket much of the Eastern U.S. this week is renewing calls from labor advocates to address the dangers of contaminated air in workplace safety rules.

Groups like the National Council of Occupational Safety and Health, also known as National COSH, point out that wildfires have polluted the air in a number of states in recent years, a hazard they and environmental experts attribute to climate change.

“This is not a one-time crisis,” Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the organization, said in a statement. “Dangerous pollution in the air we breathe will be a fact of life for years to come, because climate change has greatly increased the occurrence of wildfires and other extreme weather events.”

The group notes that only two states, California and Oregon, currently have regulations in place to protect workers from breathing smoke generated by wildfires. California’s requirements for restaurants and other workplaces kick in when the Air Quality Index, or AQI, hits a reading of at least 151.

This week, the AQI for New York City topped 400, giving the restaurant mecca the dubious distinction of having the worst-rated air in the world.

Amid the calls for greater worker safeguards, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration called on all employers to voluntarily adopt more protections, which the agency has posted on its website. But those best practices are aimed at employees who work outdoors, and are recommendations rather than requirements.

Many operators there and elsewhere in the East stopped using their outdoor dining areas as the smoke from fires hundreds of miles away turned the air an orangey yellow.  State and local officials warned constituents to stay indoors because of the health risks, and many consumers resorted to wearing masks while outside.

Many operations, including the restaurants of celebrity chef-operators Pinky Cole and Stephen Starr, shut early.

Some operations said they were closing to spare employees from having to travel amid the smoke to their jobs. Researchers in New York City took AQI readings of 350 inside the city’s subway system.

Traditional restaurant traffic generators like Broadway plays and pro-sports venues also suspended operations. The shutdowns extended to a Yankee game at the team’s Bronx stadium and the Wednesday performance of the musical “Hamilton.”

The union looking to organize food deliverers in New York City, Los Deliveristas Unidos, handed out masks to drivers and bike riders carting meals around the city. It joined the chorus of labor groups calling for climate-related workplace safety regulations and universal paid sick leave.

California’s rules for protecting workers from wildfire smoke do not apply to restaurants and other places of employment where an air filtration system is in place and the doors and windows are not left open. Establishments are also exempted if workers are exposed to air with an AQI of 151 or more for less than an hour per shift.

Otherwise, workplaces are obliged to provide a filtration system “if feasible” or take other actions that reduce the AQI, such as providing particle-capturing masks or respirators.

Oregon updated its workplace safety rules a year ago, after the state was hit by a severe and unprecedented heat wave. The regulatory changes also addressed the risks employees face from wildfire smoke.

Workplaces that don’t have a mechanical air filtration system in place are required to provide “facepiece regulators” to employees exposed to air with an AQI of 101 or higher. Employers are also required to alert employees when the rating slips below 101, and to train the staff on the proper use of masks.

“We know the threats posed by high heat and wildfire smoke are not going away,” Andrew Stolfi, director of the state’s Department of Consumer and Business Services, said in a statement issued at the time the regulations were updated. “These rules reflect that reality, and they bolster our ability to prepare for those hazards in the workplace.”

Meteorologists reported Friday morning that smoke levels in most of the Northeast are lightening but that air quality is still at an unhealthy levels. They warn that winds sweeping down the East from Canada’s British Columbia are likely to push the smoke further down the Atlantic Seaboard.  

This story was updated to include OSHA's recommendations for keeping outdoor workers safe.

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