As wildfires seized Washington in September of 2020, farmworkers in central Washington’s Yakima Valley saw ash rain from the sky. But they went to work anyway, picking apples despite the unhealthy air quality. All day long, they breathed in fine particulates known as PM2.5 — tiny particles 40 times thinner than printer paper. When PM2.5 is inhaled, it travels deep into the lungs and seeps into the blood stream, worsening respiratory issues, impairing cognitive function, and increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Currently, there are no federal regulations protecting outdoor workers from smoke, and creating a nationwide rule could take years. After the smoky summer of 2020, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries filed an emergency rule July of the following year, requiring employers to monitor workers for potential symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure and provide respirators for voluntary use. That rule expired after four months, but after the air quality plummeted again the next summer, a similar rule was adopted again in June 2022. Washington will soon adopt a permanent rule regulating outdoor workers’ smoke exposure.
Cell phone video made last summer by a farmworker in Lynden, Washington, of the smoke-filled sky over the blueberry field where he was working that day. Courtesy of Familias Unidas por la Justicia
“We needed regulations to protect workers from this hazard. Over the past decade or so, the intensity and frequency of wildfires has been going up really significantly,” said Chris Pyke, an industrial hygienist with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries who is involved in the rulemaking process. “Outdoor workers have a much higher risk of experiencing the health consequences of wildfire smoke exposure.”
“Outdoor workers have a much higher risk of experiencing the health consequences of wildfire smoke exposure.”
Officials first started working on permanent regulations several years ago, along with the state’s emergency rules. The state is currently reviewing and responding to public comments and expects to finalize the rule later this summer. Like the emergency rules issued in 2021 and 2022, the permanent rule mandates that certain employers monitor the air quality at worksites, warn workers if they’re exposed to harmful levels of smoke, limit their exposure when feasible and provide them with respirators. It also requires employers to take some protective actions at lower levels of air pollution, and, if the air quality index (AQI) reaches 500 or more — a very rare and extremely high level, according to Pyke — respirators will become mandatory. In addition, employers will need to ensure the respirators fit their employees’ faces.
Washington modeled its wildfire smoke rule after California’s, which became permanent in February 2021. California employers are required to give workers masks free of charge and take other precautions to limit employees’ smoke exposure. In July 2022, Oregon adopted its own permanent rule, which has stronger protections than California and Washington. Employees in Oregon, for example, are required to wear a mask at an AQI of 250, while Washington’s new mandatory masking provision doesn’t begin until the index reaches 500.
Though farmworker advocates say that Washington’s new rule is a necessary and important step to ensure worker safety, they continue to collectively push for the state to institute stronger protections. Meanwhile, many employer advocates have lobbied for less strict regulations.
In recent years, research has shown that even moderate levels of wildfire smoke can have long-term health impacts, said Edgar Franks, political director of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a union of independent farmworkers in Washington. His organization has been advocating for mandatory masking and other protections to kick in at a lower threshold of 50 AQI. Franks added that farmworkers face high rates of unstable housing and poverty and often lack basic health care, making them a socially vulnerable group, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standards. That puts them at greater risk of adverse side effects following wildfire smoke. “The rules need to reflect that,” Franks said. Pyke acknowledged that lower thresholds would reduce workers’ smoke exposure, though he is not aware of any Department of Labor and Industries plans to change the threshold.
The new regulations leave many decisions up to employers, including under what conditions employees must work on smoky days, and farmworker advocates fear this could mean lower protections for workers. “I find most employers want the bare minimum,” Franks said. During the rulemaking process, some employers objected to some of the proposed protections, citing concerns about the logistics and the cost of properly fitting agricultural workers properly for respirators, Pyke said.
“I find most employers want the bare minimum.”
But the rule will only succeed if it is enforced, said Mayra Reiter, project director for occupational safety and health at Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit farmworker advocacy organization that seeks to improve farmworker safety. While the state’s Department of Labor and Industries does sometimes conduct inspections at work sites, enforcement is still largely driven by complaints, which seldom come from workers. This is especially true for H-2A workers, who risk deportation if they lose their jobs. “One could have the best rule in place,” Reiter said. “(But if) there aren’t any inspectors out there making sure that people are complying, then it’s not going to have the desired effects.”
Pyke added that the rule contains language protecting employees from retaliation, in order to encourage more reporting. “We’ve tried to draft the rule in a way that prevented discrimination from happening as much as possible.”
Franks and Reiter both believe that the rules offer an opportunity for farmworkers to improve their working conditions. “I think this brings in a new way for farmworkers to really demand their rights,” Franks said. Organizers like Irene Ruiz are advocating for similar rules in their own states. Ruiz is co-founder of the Idaho Immigrant Resource Alliance, which works directly with communities to provide farmworkers with masks, hand sanitizer and water in the scorching summer heat. The group has been lobbying Idaho’s U.S. senators to create federal protections for employees during heat, wildfire and smoke events. She called Washington’s rule “a great step forward” as organizers build momentum for change in their communities.
And as climate change worsens, wildfires will become more frequent and destructive, putting more and more farmworkers at risk, Reiter said. “Just by the fact that they are outdoor workers, they are at greater risk than almost anyone else.”
Natalia Mesa is an editorial intern for High Country News based in Seattle, Washington, covering the Northwest. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.