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Sonoma County Gazette
Kinkade Fire
The main health concern in wildfire conditions like the recent Kinkade fire,is smoke, which produces particulate matter that can penetrate deep into the lungs, increasing the risk of respiratory diseases and asthma, as well as heart problems. Photo: (Anna Maria Barry-Jester/California Healthline)-/

Sonoma County Smoke Hazards
and Legal Protections

CAL/OSHA emergency regulations require employers
to take protective measures for employees
who work outdoors.


Nov 20, 2019
by Debra Newby, Newby Law


Dear Debra:

I work outdoors for a local landscaping company.  With the “new normal” being wildfires and poor air quality, I was just wondering whether I have any legal rights or extra protection when it comes to working outdoors in yucky air due to wildfires?   

Signed:  Lung-Loving Louie

Dear Louie,

Sadly, I think you are right.  Wildfires, mandatory power outages, and disruptions to our private and work life are becoming routine.  I think we also sometimes take for granted clean air (and water). 

Indeed, a wildfire several counties away can seriously impact our air quality.  This we know from past experience.  Just look at the Kincade Fire that started in the Geyserville area last month.  Ashes and fine particulates drifted into many neighboring counties.    

Local Air Quality Conditions map. Image: www.airnow.govFirst, I think it would be helpful to offer a tutorial on air quality, coupled with the resources available to our readers on how to determine your air quality, in real time.  The health of the air we breathe is measured with an Air Quality Index, or AQI.  AQI works like a thermometer and runs from 0 (pristine) to 500 degrees (very toxic and unhealthy).  An AQI under 50 is considered “Good”.  An AQI from 101 to 150 can be “Unhealthy” for sensitive groups (think folks with asthma, COPD, etc.).  An AQI from 151 to 200 is “Unhealthy”.  AQI from 201 to 300 is “Very Unhealthy”.  Anything over 301, we are all in trouble.  

The AQI reading is only as good as the instruments either on the ground or in space via satellite.  Our government tracks AQI and you can log into  and put in your location, and the AQI will be displayed.  Another private resource that I like is Purple Air.  You can download their app and get AQI readings in real time (and for a cost you can also install a ground sensor, as the more monitors we have here in Sonoma County, the more accurate our AQI readings will be).  Go to  

Sonoma County is divided into two districts when it comes to government monitoring of air quality, the division based on geography.  We have the North Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District, located in Healdsburg, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District located in San Francisco.  The San Fran office has a few more staff and resources, so for those readers who do not have access to internet or a computer, you can always call their office at  (415) 749-4900 i f you have a question about your Air Quality or any current air hazards.    

Proper fit, training and evaluations are key to protecting employees from exposure to respirable hazards when using disposable dust masks/respirators. Photo: Environment, Health, and Safety. www.ehstoday.comNext, you asked about your legal rights.  As it turns out, CAL/OSHA has issued emergency regulations that require employers to take protective measure to safeguard their employees who work outdoors. If the air quality is over 150, employers must provide outdoor workers respiratory equipment, such as N95 filtering face-piece respirators.  The respirator must meet the approval of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH”).  It is not enough to provide a NIOSH-approved device.  Employers are also encouraged to offer other protective options, such as:

•  Relocating workers to avoid the unhealthy air.

•  Provide enclosed structures, if possible, where employees can continue working. 

•  Change the workers’ schedules or work intensity.

•  Provide additional rest periods.  

Great question, Louie.  Communication is key.  Employers must implement a system for  communicating their policy and action to their outdoor workers for smoke-hazards due to wildfires.  So start a discussion today with your employer to see what options you have when the air does become too unhealthy to work outdoors.  Our health is paramount.  As  Mahatma Gandhi noted, “It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”

DEAR READERS:  Do you have a legal question on your mind?  If so, please email me at   Your name will remain confidential.  This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.



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