Wildfire Smoke

Employee Protection from Wildfire Smoke

The Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke

Although there are many hazardous chemicals in wildfire smoke, the main harmful pollutant for people who are not very close to the fire is “particulate matter,” the tiny particles suspended in the air.

Particulate matter can irritate the lungs and cause persistent coughing, phlegm, wheezing, or difficulty breathing. Particulate matter can also cause more serious problems, such as reduced lung function, bronchitis, worsening of asthma, heart failure, and early death.

People over 65 and people who already have heart and lung problems are the most likely to suffer from serious health effects.

The smallest -and usually the most harmful -particulate matter is called PM2.5 because it has a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller.

Medical Treatment

Employers shall allow employees who show signs of injury or illness due to wildfire smoke exposure to seek medical treatment, and may not punish affected employees for seeking such treatment.

Employers shall also have effective provisions made in advance for prompt medical treatment of employees in the event of serious injury or illness caused by wildfire smoke exposure.

Employees who are experiencing injury or illness due to wildfire smoke exposure at work can seek medical treatment by contacting their supervisor to complete a Workers' Compensation Claim.

Air Quality Index

Various government agencies monitor the air at locations throughout California and report the current AQI for those places. The AQI is a measurement of how polluted the air is. An AQI over 100 is unhealthy for sensitive people and an AQI over 150 is unhealthy for everyone.

Although there are AQIs for several pollutants, Title 8, section 5141.1 about wildfire smoke only uses the AQI for PM2.5.

To Find the Current AQI

Recent Smoke/Fire Map


Employers shall alert employees when the air quality is harmful and what protective measures are available to employees.

Employers shall encourage employees to inform their employers if they notice the air quality is getting worse, or if they are suffering from any symptoms due to the air quality, without fear of reprisal.

Communication about air quality issues should be communicated directly with employee’s supervisor through email or by submitting a Hazard Concern at http://ehs.ucsc.edu

Protecting Employees

  • Locating work in enclosed structures or vehicles where the air is filtered.
  • Relocating workers to an area with a lower AQI.
  • Reducing work hours in areas with unfiltered air.
  • Providing rest areas with filtered air.
  • Reducing physical effort of work to lower breathing and heart rates.

Respiratory Equipment

When the current AQI for PM2.5 is 151 or greater, employers shall provide their workers with proper respirators for voluntary use.

  • NIOSH approved respirators
  • N95 lowest level of protection allowed

When the current AQI is greater than 500, respirator use is required.

Surgical masks or items worn over the nose and mouth such as scarves, T-shirts, and bandannas will not provide protection against wildfire smoke. An N95 filtering facepiece respirator is the minimum level of protection for wildfire smoke.

Proper Use of an N95 Respirator

All N95 users must take the training in the UC Learning Center prior to N95 use. Staff are required to complete the training before N95s will be distributed.

Training covers proper use and limitations of N95s, including how to properly don and doff respirator.

Read and follow the manufacturer's instructions on the respirator's use, maintenance, cleaning and care, along with any warnings regarding the respirator's limitations.

Respirators will NOT protect employees against gases or vapors, and it will not supply oxygen in a low oxygen environment.


  • AQI
    Air Quality Index is the method used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to represent data collected over time periods of varying length in order to reflect present conditions as accurately as possible.
  • PM2.5
    Solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in air, known as particulate matter, with an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller.
  • Unhealthy AQI
    A current AQI for PM2.5 of 151 (displayed as red on air quality charts and maps).

This information summarizes Title 8 §5141.1, Appendix B of the State of California Department of Industrial Relations code