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Essential: Protecting Farmworkers from Wildfire Smoke in California – and Health Care Workers on the Frontlines of COVID-19 – With Respirators

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Paulina Cortes, a community activist from San Jose, gives a protective particulate mask to a farmworker in Stockton, California, on November 16th, 2018.

This week, as fires burned across California, blackening skies and raining ash on ripe crops, California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CalOSHA) reminded employers of the California regulation to protect farmworkers and other outdoor workers from unhealthy air from smoke.

“If employers cannot move operations indoors where air is adequately filtered and they do not have access to respiratory protection, they may need to halt operations until the outdoor air quality improves,” said CalOSHA Chief Doug Parker in a recent press release.

“This regulation is very clear about what must be done to protect farmworkers and others who work outside,” noted Amy Liebman, MPA, who directs MCN’s environmental and occupational health programming.  “After months of watching farmworkers and their families suffer from both the effects of COVID-19 and the structural failures to protect them, this regulation is quite literally a breath of fresh air. It puts worker safety before profits.”

Across California, as the fires rage on, community groups and farmworkers are speaking out to bring attention to these dangerous conditions and the regulation that seeks to reduce the danger, and CalOSHA is investigating several complaints. CalOSHA at present requires NIOSH-certified respirators like N-95, P-95, and R-95 and above, and is identifying alternatives as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and respirator supply remains low.

“So many workers -- from clinicians who are on the front lines of COVID-19, to farmworkers working tirelessly to put food on our tables – need appropriate personal protective equipment. It is simply unacceptable that, six months into this pandemic, we are experiencing any shortages in PPE,” continued Liebman. “We are failing our essential workers.”

Many advocates, including lawmakers, have urged President Trump to broaden his use of Title III of the Defense Production Act, or DAP, to expand the US’s production capacity for PPE.  Despite the higher demand, private industry has not provided the supply. The widespread and ongoing shortages of respirators that are needed by essential workers does not appear likely to be resolved until private sector companies expand production. Federal government support and direction are needed to ensure that, whether picking grapes during a major fire or attending to COVID-19 patients in an emergency room, workers’ health is protected while they perform the duties that have been deemed essential.



Western Center for Agricultural Safety and Health’s Wildfire Resources:

CalOSHA’s " Cal/OSHA Reminds Employers to Protect Workers from Unhealthy Air due to Wildfire Smoke”:



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