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As the climate crisis encroaches on workers' lives. How is OSHA responding?


Climate change is presenting new challenges in our everyday lives and also in the workplace. One of those challenges is the growing threat of wildfires. Dangerous smoke-filled air, the kind East Coasters recently experienced due to wildfires in Canada, is a major hazard for workers - especially those with outdoor jobs. So how should employers handle that? I spoke earlier with Doug Parker, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health and director of OSHA.

So for people who work outdoors, say on a farm or a construction site, that are vulnerable to dangerous air quality, what are employers required to do to keep those particular people safe?

DOUG PARKER: Every employer has an obligation to provide a safe and healthful workplace for their employees. With respect to wildfire smoke hazards, this is something that, on the West Coast, workers and employers have quite a bit of experience with. And some of the states out there have implemented rules related to protecting workers from wildfire smoke. As we see from the events in Canada, this is becoming a more widespread issue that can affect much larger parts of the country. And so our focus right now is providing guidance to employers to make sure that they're doing what they can to protect workers from these wildfire events. That includes things like moving workers indoors, delaying work necessary, being mindful of the pace of work. And we're also recommending that employers prepare for and plan to reduce exposures to smoke using things like voluntary respirator programs.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, are these recommendations, Doug, or are they requirements from OSHA?

PARKER: On the federal level, we do not have regulations that are specific to wildfire smoke. This is not something that has been regulated on a national level.

MARTÍNEZ: At the moment, OSHA really doesn't have much they can do to an employer if a worker is saying, look. I'm not safe, and I'm not healthy, and it's my employer's fault. They're not doing anything.

PARKER: In very high smoke exposure situations where the air quality is extremely hazardous, we may have some authority to act, but this is really a relatively new area where our authority really hasn't been tested. And as a result, we really have taken approach that we think is more effective given those uncertainties, which is that we are encouraging people to do the right thing and protect workers from smoke. Our tools are limited right now.

MARTÍNEZ: Did the fires and the smoke in the East Coast from those fires in Canada - was that a bit of a wake-up call for the entire country to understand that this is not going to be a regional issue that much longer?

PARKER: Well, I'm afraid we think so, yes. And that's why we put out a press release, an alert, to the regulated public that we want employers to be prepared. We were not asking them to react to that wildfire event, but we were asking them to be prepared for future wildfire events by having strategies in place, plans in place, to protect their workers, whether that is having more flexibility about when work can be done, whether that is having a respirator program and that they are using filtration systems, if that's feasible, reducing levels of physical activity, especially strenuous and heavy work, and just making accommodations for people with things like air filters and HVA systems and other things.

MARTÍNEZ: Doug Parker is assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health and director of OSHA. Doug, thanks.

PARKER: You're very welcome.

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