Regulations May Require Employers to Monitor Air Quality/Provide Respirators

New regulations for safety in the workplace are in motion as Cal/OSHA looks to protect employees from detrimental effects of working near or around California wildfires. In this episode of The Workplace, CalChamber Executive Vice President and General Counsel Erika Frank and CalChamber Policy Advocate Robert Moutrie discuss proposed regulations that will require employers to provide respirators to employees in certain circumstances.

Regulations Based on the AQI

For many California employers, Cal/OSHA handles most regulations in workplace safety.

Last year, a petition was filed by worker groups in California to protect people working outside from unsafe air quality caused by wildfires. As a result of the petition, Cal/OSHA began work on new regulations that will be triggered when the Air Quality Index, known as the AQI, reaches unhealthy levels.

Because of the recent fires in California, Moutrie explains, employers want to make sure their employees working outdoors are protected from effects of smoke. “The background issue that existed in the prior wildfires was that as the air quality worsened, the employers were in a difficult situation because you want to provide basic protections: respirators that will do filtration of the smoke hazards.” However, Moutrie describes, there is a current regulation in place, Section 5144, which states that if employers are going to distribute respirators to their employees, there are other steps they must take, which include fit testing and medical evaluations done by professionals.

“The problem is, I can’t just hand out respirators because I need these testings, but clearly something was needed because smoke was out there,” says Moutrie. “These regulations were initially brought up to fix that. The concept is that these [regulations] allow workplaces to continue operating while providing some protection to workers without going through the fit testing and other regulations that are hard to do in an emergency situation.”

The new regulations by Cal/OSHA are pending with the Cal/OSHA Standards Board expected to vote on them in July. According to Moutrie, the regulations are expected to be approved. Though the CalChamber has some ongoing concerns with the regulations’ present form, Moutrie expressed that employers believe the regulations are a step in the right direction.

When the Regulations Are Triggered

“When the AQI hits a certain point, the new regulations will go into effect,” explains Moutrie in the podcast. “As proposed now, that level will be when an AQI of 150 for PM 2.5 is reached. Employers will then have to provide a handout to employees, provide some discussion, keep them apprised of what the air quality is and give them an option of using a respirator.”

If the impending regulations pass in July as expected, employers should prepare their businesses and employees with safety protections by August.

There are many inexpensive ways for employers to track and monitor the AQI. They can receive daily emails about the AQI forecast, check levels online or purchase an AQI detector. Additionally, Moutrie recommends, employers should consider preparing ahead of time for unsafe air quality levels by stockpiling N95 masks for all of their workers for a two-week period.

All California employers with “a worker who is outdoors for more than an hour cumulative over the course of their shift” must comply with these regulations.

“Having workers outside for a cumulative of an hour brings in a broad base of employers for those employees who might be going in and outside, working in a warehouse, carwashes, different places where there is a lot of traffic from inside to outside,” adds Frank.

As these regulations come closer to a vote, employers can find more information including the dates and times of the Standard Board meetings on the State of California Department of Industrial Relations website, as well as any updated draft language.

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