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WSU Institutes New Wildfire Smoke Policy for Employees

April 18, 2024
By RJ Wolcott, WSU News & Media Relations

The emergence of regular wildfire seasons in the Pacific Northwest recently prompted the state of Washington to enact new regulations to protect outdoor workers.

In response, Washington State University enacted its own policy as well as training requirements for employees at risk of breathing in smoky air during the course of their work routines. The policy sets standards for alerting employees on campuses, extension, and research sites of potentially hazardous air quality conditions as well as outlining the steps units and departments must take based on particulate matter concentrations.

Each campus’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety will notify employees when air quality conditions are approaching unhealthy conditions. Daily updates will be provided when air quality reaches very unhealthy levels as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Wildfires in the United States and Canada have caused several instances of unhealthy air quality across the state and region in recent years. Wildfires in Spokane last year resulted in multiple days of poor air quality for that region, ranging from unhealthy for sensitive groups to actively hazardous. In 2020, five days of hazardous air quality were recorded in the communities around WSU Tri-Cities, with the Air Quality Index topping out at 905. For context, the EPA considers an API above 300 to be hazardous, with the potential to negatively affect all population groups.

Depending on the concentration of respirable airborne particulates, or PM 2.5, outdoor employees will be provided with N95 protective facepiece respirators by their units or departments. When levels reach very unhealthy levels, supervisors will ensure employees being impacted by conditions receive medical attention and are moved to indoor areas with clean air.

Departments with large numbers of outdoor employees, including facilities and auxiliary services, keep stocks of N95 masks in the event of wildfire smoke events.

Monitoring of particulate matter levels is done across the state, with WSU having its own sensors on the WSU Pullman and Tri-Cities campuses. The university also recently installed sensors at the Prosser Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center as well as the Othello Extension Center.

“We prioritized the Othello location in particular because it’s a farm with a bunch of outdoor workers and because there’s no local air quality monitors,” Shawn Ringo, co-director of Environmental Health and Safety, said.

EH&S is also making plans to install an air quality monitors near its extension site in Wenatchee at the Sunrise Orchard. Campuses, research and extension sites without their own monitoring can use the state of Washington’s Air Monitoring Network to evaluate local air quality conditions.

WSU’s new policy requires outdoor workers and their supervisors to complete wildfire smoke training offered by Human Resource Services via Percipio. Anyone who potentially could be working outside during smoky conditions is encouraged to complete the training.

“It’s reasonable to interpret the state’s policy as applying to anyone assigned to work outside, which affects many different WSU employees,” Ringo said. “The Week of Welcome picnic on the Pullman campus provides a good illustration of how broad this group is. In recent years, that event has been impacted by wildfire smoke and student affairs employees have been provided with protective face coverings to use.”

More information about WSU’s policy is available on the Office of Policies, Records and Forms website.

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