29Jun 2018

California Wildfire Smoke Makes Breathing Difficult

The Pawnee Fire burning north of Sacramento and at least nine other active fires throughout California serve as a reminder for those living and working in or near those areas: the smoke filling the sky poses a health risk.

As we have discussed in this space before, wildfire smoke is full of gases, chemicals, and fine particles that no one wants to breathe in. People with heart disease, chest pain, asthma, and other similar diseases are at particular risk of serious illness, if not protected from the smoke.

If your employees don’t have respiratory protection already as part of their job, they will need it to stay safe. One immediate option is the filtering facepiece respirator. These come at a fairly low cost and are generally available at hardware and drug stores for purchase. You can also find them online.

Finding the right respirator

NIOSH-approved N95 (or above) respirators help protect against wildfire smoke

NIOSH-approved respirators, N95 and above, provide some protection against wildfire smoke

When you head off to the store or jump on the computer to purchase respirators, you want to find ones that have a rating of at least N95, and carry the approval of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). You can find the approval on the packaging the respirators come in, or in the product description online.

Additionally, you’ll want respirators that have two straps that wrap around the head. Anything less does not provide proper protection. And, surgical masks do not protect against wildfire smoke.

Other protections for you and your employees

While providing respirators is a good first step, there are some other steps you can take to further reduce your employees’ exposure to the smoke:

  • Limit the time working outdoors.
  • Postpone any rigorous activity.
  • Keep indoor air as clean as possible by turning off air conditioning units that draw in the smoke-polluted air from outside.
  • With summer temperatures continuing to rise, the above suggestion might not work everywhere. If air conditioning is a necessity, replace all ventilation unit filters with high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) air filters. (These filters do a good job on air particulates, but are not that effective against gases and odors).
  • If conditions are really bad, you might consider sending your workers home for the day—especially those that live long distances away and would have to drive through the smoky conditions.

Summertime is fire season in California. As the Pawnee Fire approaches 14,000 acres and the other blazes continue to burn and possibly expand, smoke will fill the air in the surrounding communities for a few days.

And, as we all know about California summers, more fires are likely on the way. Stocking up now on respirators help your employees get through the immediate emergency. Continuing to stock up puts you in position to help them again, the next time a big fire breaks out.

For the latest fire information, please visit the Cal Fire website.

For more information on how to protect against wildfire smoke, please see these resources:


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