CalOSHA considering regulations to require employers to provide face masks to employees during wildfires

In response to a petition from the California Labor Federation, Worksafe, and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (CalOSHA) is considering adopting emergency regulations that would require employers to provide respirators, such as N95 face masks, to employees who work outdoors when the air quality is poor as the result of wildfire smoke.

Existing regulations require employers to provide respirators when necessary to protect the health of the employee, but there is no clear standard for determining at what point an employer’s obligation would be triggered as the result of wildfire smoke. The proposed regulations would provide a clearer protocol that employers would be required to follow when air quality is affected by wildfire smoke.

As currently drafted, the proposed regulations would place three key obligations on employers: monitoring air quality reports from government websites, communicating with employees, and providing respirators. Employers would be required to provide respirators to employees who spend more than an hour per day working outdoors when air quality is bad.

Respirator use by the employee would be voluntary when the air quality index (AQI) for PM2.5 – a type of very small particulate matter that poses the greatest risk to employee health – exceeded 150 but was below 500.

If the AQI for PM2.5 exceeded 500, respirator use by covered employees would be mandatory, and additional requirements for employees to be medically evaluated and fit tested for respirator use would also apply.

Newspapers have a special interest in these regulations given that reporters and photographers regularly spend more than an hour outside in the course of their workday. Reporters and photographers who cover wildfires could be exposed to air with an AQI of more than 500 for PM2.5 and thus be subject to the mandatory respirator use, medical evaluation, and fit testing.

There has not yet been formal action by CalOSHA to begin the administrative rulemaking process, but it is expected that CalOSHA will begin the formal process in the coming weeks. CNPA will be submitting comments to CalOSHA that seek to protect the newspaper industry from unclear and/or unduly burdensome requirements.

If you have any questions, please contact CNPA Staff Attorney Whitney Prout at 916-288-6006.