Smoky Air Prompts Mask Distribution to Outdoor Workers

With most of Oregon being under an air quality advisory — including neighboring Linn and Lane counties — due to smoke and smog caused by still-raging wildfires and more recent heat waves, respectively, OSHA and several partners will be distributing hundreds of thousands of N95 masks to outdoor workers toiling in these hazardous conditions. The effort will put the agency to the test in regards to the effectiveness of emergency rules that it enacted earlier this week to protect workers from wildfire smoke.

These rules, which went into effect on August 9, require employers to provide N95 respirators to employees when the Air Quality Index hits 101; to maintain an “adequate” supply of respirators; to notify their employees of air quality hazards; and, when possible, to change work schedules or relocate workers.

“With these new temporary smoke rules, workers finally have some protections from climate-related smoke hazards,” said Kate Suisman, an attorney for the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, in an interview with The Oregonian. Set to expire on February 9, 2022, OSHA intends to develop and implement permanent versions of these rules in the future.

OSHA will be collaborating with the Oregon Homebuilders Association, the Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia Chapter and Hoffman Construction to create distribution sites where N95 masks can be provided. Masks will also be distributed to farmworkers through the Oregon Agriculture Department.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality expects the air quality advisory to remain in effect until noon on Monday, August 16. Air quality can be monitored by checking the department’s online index or, for smartphone users, the OregonAIR app.

By Millicent Durand