As urban areas encroach on wildlands there is an ever-increasing possibility that a wildfire, possibly started many miles away from your job site, will have an impact on workers at your job site. Wildfires are on the rise around the world and are known by many different names. Names such as forest fires, grass fires, vegetation fires, and bush fires which collectively are called wildfires in this article. Job hazard assessments for wildfire risks should take into consideration a wide range of topics, some of which are briefly discussed below. There are many situations where a wildfire, or the effects of a wildfire, may alter routine work and need to be addressed in your Job Safety Analysis, JSA.
An early indicator that a wildfire may impact the health and safety of the workforce is smoke. Smoke from a fire can travel many miles from the source. When workers see and smell smoke, it would be an appropriate time to stop work, review the JSA, and assess the situation in an effort to determine the distance to the source fire as well as the direction and speed at which the fire is traveling.
Changes to outdoor and indoor air quality due to a drastic increase in fine particulate matter from smoke is an important health risk for consideration in your JSA or Job Hazard Analysis (JHA). Smoke health related to particulate matter impacts range mild to severe breathing issues, burning eyes, runny nose and may lead to aggravation of chronic heart and lung disease. For additional details please see information by the American Lung Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
An example for particulate matter from smoke and the resulting mitigation is shown in the following table.
Note: this is just an example, your JSA or JHA should evaluate the specific risks and mitigations that are appropriate to your job site and conditions.
PM2.5 Concentration µg/m3 (measured with onsite monitor)
Air Quality Index (AQI)
Example Work Guidelines
|0-15.4||0-50||Good||Normal Site Activities|
|15.5-40.4||51-100||Moderate||Normal Site Activities; monitor air quality as needed|
|40.5-65.4||101-150||Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups||Normal site activities; reduce outdoor work as necessary for sensitive individuals|
88-150 µg/m3 =
- limit outdoor activities to less than 2 hours with 30-min break indoors at
- Limit physical strenuous activities such as using rope as bird deterrent and pulling pumps and pipes.
150-250 µg/m3 =
- Stop work and move indoors. No routine work onsite until air quality improves.
- With approval from supervisor, half- face respirators or N95, N99, or N100 mask with exhalation valve for essential tasks; limit outdoor activity to approx. 1-hour with 30-min break indoors at <65 µg/m3
|>250||300+||Hazardous||>250 µg/m3 = Stop work and return home. No routine work onsite until air quality improves. Check for local health advisories.|
EPA/AirNow AQI Calculator (www.airnow.gov)
EPA Air Quality Communication Workshop 2012 (https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-05/documents/zell-aqi.pdf)
A large volume of information and documentation related to the health hazards related to wildfire smoke from authoritative sources are available, but there are many other hazards that one may want to take into consideration as part of your pre-project planning and during preparation of the Job Safety Analysis or Job Hazard Analysis.
In addition to the health hazards, heavy smoke as a fire approaches your location can obstruction visibility and cause disorientation and driving hazards. Remote workers may particularly be impacted by adverse driving conditions and disruptions in traffic patterns due to sudden road closures and detours.
Does your JSA consider how traffic patterns may have changed for workers getting to / from the job site or traffic congestion and possible road closures in the event an evacuation is required? Your primary evacuation point may not be accessible to all workers. Some site workers may be separated and unable to reach the muster point, so consider multiple muster points.
Your site may experience power interruptions due to direct impacts from fire or due to utility fire prevention measures.
Police, medical and fire rescue personnel may be unavailable if a site worker is injured and your primary hospital or medical facility may not be accepting new patients. Have you identified a secondary hospital or medical facility in your health and safety plan?
Wildfires move at incredible speeds and can be propelled by and accompanied by very strong wind. What impacts of rapid change in weather patterns and sudden strong winds should be included in your JSA? Wind damage to structures and trees are common. Windblown embers can and do start new fires in fields and structures at very long distances from the main fire. If an ember ignites a fire in your work area, has the potential for burns on workers been risk assessed in the JSA?
How do you notify your workers during time of rapidly changing conditions? Does the JSA or health and safety plan include an emergency communication section? Does your JSA consider the risk that a wildfire may impact cellular phones? Cellular service can be impacted in several ways during a wildfire, such as the fire damaging part of the cellular communication equipment, a power outage, or the network is simply overloaded by cellular callers. How will workers, some may be dispersed over a wide area, be notified in the event the site needs to be evacuated and there is spotty or no cell service?
In addition to the above items, it is very likely there are site specific hazards that need to be risk assessed and included in your Job Safety Analysis. The above topics are intended to offer some items to be considered in the event of a wildfire, but by no means are they an exhaustive list of wildfire related hazards.
Workers need to have a wildfire plan of action, discuss the plan, and be ready to execute the plan should a wildfire impact the work location. Once fire starts to impinge on the parameter of your work area or start entering the work site or work area, this pre-planning will have been well worth the effort. JSABuilder.com is a fantastic on-line job safety analysis app to assist in preparing your JSA. Set up a free trial account today and follow us on Twitter @JSABuilder, where we Tweet about Health and Safety, provide Safety tips, and updates on current Health and Safety topics.