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In spring, as the weather warms, many regions of Canada enter wildfire season, a season that typically lasts until October. These wildfires can burn through forests and grasslands. In addition to the dangers inherent in fighting these immense fires is the danger posed by the vast amount of dense smoke than can travel hundreds of kilometres and be a major source of toxic air pollutants for communities downwind. These smoke events can affect the air quality of those who live and work in and near the affected area. Although the occurrence of wildfires can be difficult to predict, employers can still get prepared so they can protect their workers from exposure to the smoke.
What’s in wildfire smoke
Wildfire smoke is toxic. It’s made up of particles and gases containing hundreds of chemicals. In addition to the large amounts of fine particulate matter, there are gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Depending on what’s burning, the smoke may also contain sulfur oxides, volatile organic compounds, and other compounds such as hydrocarbons and formaldehyde that are known to be carcinogenic.
Outdoor workers, including those in construction, agriculture, and landscaping, are the most exposed to wildfire smoke, but there are many other jobs that can put workers in contact with the smoke, such as those in transportation, delivery services, and even those with limited exposure to the outdoors. Indoor workers may also be exposed if smoke is introduced into the workplace through opened windows, or inefficient HVAC systems and air filters.
Breathing in smoke may cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as cause headaches and worsening of allergies. The potential for harmful health effects from wildfire smoke depends on the level and duration of exposure, age of the workers, individual susceptibility, and other factors. For these reasons, not everyone exposed to smoke will be affected in the same way.
Workers with lung conditions such as asthma or other chronic diseases, pregnant women, and older adults are more vulnerable to serious or acute symptoms. These symptoms may include shortness of breath, persistent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and increased mucous production.
Inhaling fine particles of smoke has been linked with the aggravation of pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. There may be increased concerns from workers relating to long-term health effects of smoke inhalation, such as an increased risk of cancer or other chronic health problems. In general, however, the long-term health risks from short-term exposure, i.e. days to weeks (United States Environmental Protection Agency), experienced by those living in an area where there is wildfire smoke in low or moderate levels, are quite low. Symptoms are likely temporary for most healthy workers and resolve when the air clears, or when moved indoors with clean air.
Employers should evaluate the risk of forest fires to their workplaces and include procedures to monitor and respond to smoke events and the possibility of evacuation. Routinely check the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) or other indicators of smoke levels in your community, as well as wind speed and direction. It’s important to train workers on these emergency response procedures and preparing for possible evacuation.
There are several steps you can take to protect workers when there is smoke in the air. This can start with moving work indoors and ensuring ventilation systems and air filters are maintained to effectively remove smoke particulates to provide clean air to work areas.
Try to limit workers’ strenuous outdoor activities as much as possible. This type of work can increase air intake as much as 20 times. Workers who have difficulty breathing should reduce their activities or stop altogether. If smoke levels are high, temporarily re-locate these workers to an area with cleaner air and reschedule the work until the air quality improves.
When these controls are unable to reduce exposures to acceptable levels, respiratory equipment may be used to reduce exposure to particulates and must be selected in accordance with the Canadian Standard Association (CSA) Standard Z94.4-18. In Canada, most wildfires burn during the summer and the most intense fires often occur when the weather is the hottest. This means that workers may be exposed to both smoke and extreme heat. Follow your heat stress program and factor in the added stress due to reduced air quality. When it isn’t possible for workers to spend time in cooler and cleaner air, make sure to provide access to water and encourage them to drink regularly. Even if they don’t feel thirsty, drinking water and staying hydrated helps ensure that the nose and mouth are moist.
Check in on workers
Check in regularly with workers about both their physical and mental health. Any workers who display severe symptoms must receive medical attention immediately from a health care practitioner. For additional advice on symptoms, most provinces and territories offer health advice remotely. Any work-related incidents must be reported and investigated.
Wildfire smoke events can also be mentally and emotionally challenging. Feeling anxious, stressed, sad or isolated is not uncommon. Eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising indoors, and staying in contact with friends can help. Remind workers about any available supports, like an employee assistance program, and encourage anyone having trouble coping with stress, anxiety, or depression to seek help from a health care professional.
Smoke events can be unpredictable and may last a long time, but they will end. Be prepared, offer support, and eventually the smoke will clear.
Tips and Tools
Are you feeling a little foggy, mentally or physically tired, or lacking motivation? You may be fatigued. Often thought as the state of feeling very tired, weary, or sleepy due to working long hours, not getting enough sleep, or from prolonged periods of stress or anxiety, fatigue is a workplace hazard that employers should be concerned about.
The impact of fatigue can be considered a form of impairment, making it a workplace hazard that can be dangerous for not only the worker, but also for other employees, and even members of the public. Consider delivery truck drivers, for example. If preventative measures aren’t put in place, long hours from shift work or extended workdays may result in the drivers feeling fatigued while on the road, putting themselves and others at risk.
In fact, research has shown that the number of hours awake can be similar to blood alcohol levels. One study reports that 17 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05, and 21 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.08 (legal limit in Canada). Other studies have shown that workers who have slept for less than 5 hours before work, or have been awake for more than 16 hours, have a significantly higher chance of making mistakes at work because of fatigue. While it can be difficult to isolate the effect of fatigue on incident and injury rate, understanding it as a workplace hazard and then implementing controls can help employers proactively prevent fatigue-related incidents.
And make sure you don’t hit snooze on feelings like giddiness, boredom, loss of appetite, and digestive issues. These may also be signs of fatigue.
Fatigue can include mental, physical, or subjective states, and can cause workers to potentially be inattentive, physically exhausted, or drowsy. By following these tips and addressing potential hazards and associated risks, employers can rest assured knowing that they’re helping workers to stay alert and stay safe while on the job.
Resources from CCOHS
Workplace health and safety programs are part of a workplace’s duty to protect employees. Learn more about the basics, what’s required by law, and how ensure that it’s working.
CCOHS Conversations: Unpacking the Basics of Workplace Health and Safety Programs
Workplaces have a duty to protect employees on the job, and part of that commitment includes having a current health and safety program in place. Learn more about the basics of a program, what’s required by law, and how to ensure it’s making a positive impact on your workers.
The podcast runs 8:12 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
CCOHS produces free monthly podcasts on a wide variety of topics designed to keep you current with information, tips, and insights into the health, safety, and well-being of working Canadians. You can download the audio segment to your computer or MP3 player and listen to it at your own convenience... or on the go!
New COVID-19 Resources
As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, CCOHS continues to release new and updated resources to help workplaces prevent the spread. Get guidance on forestry, Veterinary and Animal Care Services, and Contact Tracing for COVID-19. As with all our COVID resources, these fact sheets are free, downloadable, and easy to share.
New COVID-19 infographic:
New guidance is available on:
More Free Resources
At some point in our lives, we are all likely to be affected by a mental health problem, whether it's through a family member, a friend, a colleague, or through personal experience. Promoting mental well-being at work makes good sense for both employees and organizations.
Share this infographic that describes a healthy workplace and its benefits, and lists tips on how workplaces can support positive mental health.
Occupational health and safety laws are always evolving. This month’s highlights include amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Act in Alberta, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act in Ontario, and occupational health and safety regulations in Nunavut, Quebec, and Saskatchewan.
Workers’ Compensation Act: S.A. 2020, c. 32, numerous sections came into force 01/04/21 making various amendments throughout including: adding Part 1.1 Review Body (new sections 9.3 and 9.4); adding definitions for “Fairness Review Officer” and “review body”; amending Section 13.2; repealing and replacing Part 3.1 Fairness Review Officer (new sections 23.1 and 23.2); amending Section 24; repealing and replacing Section 24.3 Occupational disease review; repealing sections 45, 46, 46.1, 46.4 and 5.1; adding new Section 89.1 Duties of worker to mitigate and cooperate, Section 89.2 Duty of employer to cooperate, and Section 89.3 Terminational or reduction of compensation by the Board; and, adding new Section 136.2 Publication of grants.
Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (Safety Act): R-013-2021 makes amendments to subsection 81(1) regarding the meaning of “smoke” and makes various amendments in sections 127 “Handrails” and 128 Guardrails”.
Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997: S.O. 2021, c. 3 adds Section 88.1 Exception, 2021 calendar year, and Section 167 Information. New section 88.1 sets out a special rule for the calculation of certain premiums payable by employers for the 2021 calendar year. New section 167 provides that the Minister may direct the Board to provide the Minister with information that the Minister considers necessary for the proper administration of the Act.
Regulation respecting occupational health and safety (Act respecting occupational health and safety): O.C. 287-2021 replaces paragraphs in Section 145; replaces Section 147; and, repeals Section 146 and Schedule VIII.
Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, 2020 (Saskatchewan Employment Act): Sask. Reg. 31/2021 adds Section 6-22.1 Special vaccination leave regarding employer requirements for permitting workers to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
For more information regarding recent regulatory changes CCOHS offers a paid subscription service, Canadian enviroOSH Legislation plus Standards, that provides a collection of all the health, safety and environmental legislation you need in one location.
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
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