In May of this year, Conn Maciel Carey’s OSHA Practice submitted comments to the Cal/OSH Standards Board on behalf of the Wildfire Smoke Rule Industry Coalition about the agency’s effort to make permanent what had been Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers from the respiratory hazards of California wildfires.
Last month, the Cal/OSH Standards Board issued a 15-day Notice of Proposed Modifications to what would become the permanent wildfire smoke rule. The proposed changes are not major, mostly clarifying that one of the methods for determining the Air Quality Index for particulate matter 2.5 is the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program.
Another change to be expected in the final rule is a revision to the Appendix B training instructions to address cleaning and maintenance of reusable respirators, purportedly to address critical shortages of N95 respirators exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While anything that extends the supply of N95 masks is welcome, that change alone is not nearly enough to solve a massive compliance problem created by the rule. With the Wildfire Smoke Rule, DOSH requires workers exposed to wildfire smoke be supplied with N95 respirators, and it does not consider surgical masks to be acceptable substitutes. DOSH concedes that N95 respirators are generally not available to any but medical workers right now, but they have no recommended substitutes.
That was one of the primary points of emphasis in our coalition’s comments — the rule needed to include some flexibility around the requirement for employers to supply N95 respirator masks for all potentially affected workers. There were already problems with N95 shortages even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now, the shortage is extreme, and with the CDC’s and OSHA’s recommendations that all supplies of N95s should be reserved for the healthcare industry obviously makes compliance with a a rigid N95 requirement for wildfire smoke protection impossible for most employers. Now in the midst of another wildfire season in California, employers are continuing to experience N95 shortages.