As wildfires continue to affect B.C.’s Southern Interior, employers and workers must remain vigilant about the potential health risks posed by smoke exposure.
“Breathing in smoke can be dangerous for workers, as it is a form of air pollution that contains a complex mixture of harmful gases, fine particles, and chemicals,” says Colin Murray, senior manager in WorkSafeBC’s Risk Analysis Unit. “Prolonged exposure can lead to a range of health issues, including respiratory problems, an aggravation of asthma, eye irritation, and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections.”
Individual responses to smoke vary, with certain groups being more vulnerable to its health impacts. Specific worker populations should limit their exposure, including those with pre-existing conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, and diabetes; pregnant individuals; elderly people; and those with current or recent respiratory infections such as COVID-19. Healthy individuals can also be affected and should watch for symptoms such as coughing, sore throat, eye irritation, and headaches, and then reduce exposure as needed.
As the most effective means of protection, employers must eliminate smoke exposure wherever possible for both indoor and outdoor workers. Where elimination is not possible, employers must minimize exposure by implementing the following controls as practicable:
- Limit strenuous outdoor work.
- Encourage breaks in spaces with better indoor air quality.
- For outdoor workers, ensure proper N95 respirator fit, guided by occupational health experts.
- Rely on the air quality health index (AQHI) when scheduling outdoor work activities and determining the required controls, including appropriate PPE.
- Supply ample water, as hydration is key to reducing inflammation.
- Set up portable HEPA air cleaners in specific indoor areas to ensure clean air.
- Consult with a qualified HVAC technician or ventilation engineer to evaluate and adjust HVAC systems.
- Advise workers in vehicles to keep vents and windows closed and operate the air conditioning in “recirculate” mode. Workers should open the windows occasionally in areas with good air quality to prevent carbon dioxide from building up inside the vehicles.
- Collaborate with workers and joint health and safety committees or representatives to devise plans for workers with chronic conditions, keeping necessary medications on hand.
WorkSafeBC emphasizes that effective risk management requires ongoing monitoring, evaluation, and adaptation of control measures based on changing conditions. Employers should regularly consult with their workers to assess the effectiveness of their wildfire smoke controls and adjust as needed.
- Media backgrounder: Wildfires: Keeping workers safe
- Information sheet: Wildfire Smoke: FAQs
- Information sheet: Wildfire Evacuation planning
WorkSafeBC engages workers and employers to prevent injury, disease, and disability in B.C. When work-related injuries or diseases occur, WorkSafeBC provides compensation and support to people in their recovery, rehabilitation, and safe return to work. We serve 2.6 million workers and 270,000 employers across B.C.
For more information, contact:
Media Relations, WorkSafeBC