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Center Helps Growers Navigate New Air Quality Regulations

A Davis-based agency is helping growers understand and follow state rules protecting outdoor workers from unhealthy wildfire smoke.

6/24/2020

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When the Camp Fire devastated the Butte County town of Paradise and filled the sky over much of Northern and Central California with thick, brown smoke in October 2018, health warnings were issued. Schools were closed, outdoor events were cancelled and those with chronic health conditions like asthma and heart problems were advised to stay indoors. People whose jobs require them to be outside – like almond growers and the employees who work for them – also were advised to avoid being outdoors when the smoke was at its worst.

Tragically, 85 people lost their lives in the Camp Fire, the deadliest in state history. Additionally, Pacific Gas & Electric – whose power lines were ruled to have started the blaze – was forced into bankruptcy in an effort to settle billions of dollars in liabilities.

Another result of the fire was the long-term impact it had on guidelines intended to protect anyone working outside when air quality is compromised due to wildfire smoke. Only a few months after the Camp Fire finally was put out, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal OSHA), the state agency governing worker safety, filed an emergency order regarding outdoor workers. By July 2019, new rules and regulations – under which almond growers and their employees are covered – had been enacted.

The new regulations protecting workers from wildfire smoke
are pegged to the Air Quality Index (AQI) and require employers to monitor the local AQI. Anytime the index exceeds the limit for PM 2.5 – a measurement of tiny airborne particles that can harm the lungs – N95 masks may be required, and outdoor work could be halted or limited.

Some of the signs of unhealthy smoke exposure include burning eyes, runny nose, chest pain, fatigue and coughing. People with underlying conditions like asthma and heart disease are at higher risk for being adversely affected by smoke.

The rules also require employers to provide training and health information to employees. That’s where the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety
(WCAHS) comes in.

The center, based at the University of California (UC), Davis, works with growers throughout California to provide free
safety resources and information on wildfire smoke for employers and employees. Among other resources, the center offers an employer checklist in English and Spanish as well as a double-sided poster and accompanying discussion guide, also in English and Spanish, which are useful tools for tailgate trainings and safety reminders posted in the workplace.

“We try to make it as easy as possible to keep people safe,” said Heather Riden, Agricultural Health and Safety Manager for WCAHS. “A lot of training happens right before a shift. We help tell the employer exactly what to say.”

The center also is developing an in-person training for growers and their employees that provides a more comprehensive review of the health effects of wildfire smoke exposure and worker protection procedures.

“Agriculture is very much impacted by these rules,” said Riden, who estimated that there are more 800,000 agricultural workers in California.


Beyond wildfire smoke, the reminder to be constantly monitoring local AQI is especially timely as the 2020 harvest is upon us. Unhealthy air conditions during harvest can create headaches for growers, especially if nuts have been shaken from trees but sweeping or pick up is delayed, which will increase the risk of damage to nuts from rodents or ants. Regardless, growers and custom harvesters must be aware of local conditions and act appropriately to ensure worker safety at all times.

Chris Simmons, who is an associate professor of Food Science and Technology at UC Davis, also serves as Director of Research and Outreach at WCAHS. He said the center has a three-decade record of engaging agricultural communities in California, Arizona, Hawaii and Nevada through research and outreach.

The Camp Fire, Simmons said, was a reminder of how a big fire in one part of the state can affect people hundreds of miles away.

It’s clear that wildfire smoke can travel a remarkable distance and linger due to weather patterns and geography within California, particularly in the Central Valley,” Simmons said. “It’s important that growers are prepared to protect themselves and their employees, even if they are not close to active wildfires or areas at risk of fire.”

Growers throughout the state are encouraged to visit aghealth.ucdavis.edu/wildfires
to access all the resources provided by the WCAHS.