Wildfire Hazard and Injury in Workers Compensation and L&I Claims

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Today, the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) issued a news bulletin about hazards of wild fire smoke for workers. The stated purpose of the bulletin is to help employers keep workers safe. I think it is equally important for workers to know the hazards, so they can help keep themselves safe from a work injury or occupational disease. According to L&I, wildfire smoke contains hazardous chemicals that vary depending on what is on fire and the location of the fire. Moreover, it depends on environmental conditions, the age of the smoke, and other factors. These chemicals can affect the lungs and worsen asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis and/or pneumonia. It can also affect the heart and increase heart attack risk.

L&I warning workers of wild fire hazards

Washington State provides outdoor air information on the Smoke Blog. This information can help employers and workers determine if air quality might be hazardous. For outdoor workers, reducing contact time with hazardous conditions of air quality is a good idea. When practical, L&I suggests outdoor workers that expose themselves to poor air quality to relocate to less smoky areas. Alternatively, outdoor workers can reschedule work until the air quality improves, reduce the level or duration of physical exertion, work inside enclosed structures where the air is filtered, or use the "recirculated" air mode on enclosed vehicles and keep vents and windows closed.

For indoor workers, L&I suggests that employers ensure HVAC systems are working properly. Also, it is important that air filters are clean and mount properly on the HVAC system. Less intuitive recommendations are to make sure that indoor air pressure does not become lower than outdoor pressure, and that employers should install the highest filtration the business HVAC system will support. Furthermore, using portable HEPA air cleaners to improve air quality in small spaces an help. Finally, avoid using candles indoors or operate vacuum cleaners to keep the air clean.

What more can workers do to prevent work injury?

According to L&I, proper respirators may reduce exposure to wildfire smoke hazards. Workers with breathing problems or chronic heart and lung disease should ask their medical provider if they can wear a dust mask or a respirator. Because respirators restrict breathing and put stress on the heart and lungs, they may not be appropriate for all workers. Workers can also ask to wear a dust mask. The NIOSH-approved masks labeled N95 or N100 can provide protection from wildfire smoke.

L&I encourages workers who believe their health has been impacted by wildfire smoke to file claims and undergo a medical evaluation. To file a claim, workers may go to the emergency room or to any health care provider they choose. Workers should be prepared to explain how they were exposed to wildfire smoke at work. Then, the health care provider can help to file a claim.

L&I claim management for wild fire work injury

L&I or a third-party administrator will evaluate the claim to determine if the facts and circumstances support claim allowance. In my experience, these kinds of claims have been challenging to get allowed, and assistance from an experienced attorney may be needed. Finally, the L&I’s full safety & health bulletin about the hazards of wildfire smoke for Washington State workers can be found on their website.

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