Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

Washington enforcing summertime heat and wildfire protection rules

Posted by Jon Elliott on Mon, Jul 18, 2022


This summer is again bringing record-breaking heat to parts of North America. It's time to remember that outdoor work in the summer sun can lead to heat illness, as can indoor work in spaces that aren’t sufficiently insulated or cooled. It’s also time to consider the possible impacts of local or regional wildfires on workplace air quality. Washington state provides useful benchmarks for these considerations, through rules administered every summer by the Department of Labor & Industries’ (L&I’s) Division of Occupational Safety and Health. The remainder of this note summarizes those requirements.

What are Washington’s outdoor heat protection requirements?

Washington has required heat-related protective measures every summery since 2008 (WAC 296-62-095 through 296-62-09560). They provide the following.

  • How Does Heat Cause Illness?

When someone works in a hot environment, their body must shed excess heat to maintain a stable internal temperature. This is accomplished mainly by circulating blood to the skin, and by sweating. This becomes less effective when the air temperature is close to or warmer than normal body temperature, and/or when the humidity is high enough to prevent effective evaporation. Even when it works, the worker’s body tends to heat up, and fluids and salts lost by sweating will have to be replaced.

Definitions of "heat-related illness" vary, but Washington’s is typical: " A medical condition resulting from the body's inability to cope with a particular heat load, and includes, but is not limited to, heat cramps, heat rash, heat exhaustion, fainting, and heat stroke." Recognizing that each individual’s body may respond differently to workplace conditions, professionals and regulators provide different guidance about conditions that should trigger explicit attention to the hazard, Washington focuses on “outdoor [work] environments,” which are defined as follows:

“Outdoor environment. An environment where work activities are conducted outside. Work environments such as inside vehicle cabs, sheds, and tents or other structures may be considered an outdoor environment if the environmental factors affecting temperature are not managed by engineering controls. Construction activity is considered to be work in an indoor environment when performed inside a structure after the outside walls and roof are erected.”

  • When and where does Washington require actions?

L&I applies specific rules from May 1 through September 30 each year, and requires employer actions whenever ambient temperature exceeds the following thresholds:

    • 89 oF for most situations

    • 77 oF if workers are wearing “double-layer woven clothes including coveralls, jackets and sweatshirts”

    • 52 oF if workers are wearing “nonbreathing clothes including vapor barrier clothing or PPE such as chemical resistant suits”

These requirements do not apply where exposures are limited to “incidental exposure” for no more than 15 minutes per hour.

  • What actions are required?

Heat illness can be prevented if workers have the chance to keep their body temperatures down, to cool off if they start to overheat, and to rehydrate. L&I requires Washington employers to do the following:

    • take steps to ensure that exposed employees drink enough water, including:

      • ensure that “a sufficient quantity of drinking water is readily accessible to employees at all times”

      • ensure that all exposed employees have the opportunity to drink at least one quart of drinking water per hour

      • encourage employees to frequently consume water or other acceptable beverages to ensure hydration

    • relieve employees showing signs or demonstrating symptoms of heat-related illness from duty, provide them a sufficient means to reduce body temperature, and monitor them to determine whether medical attention is necessary

    • provide employee training, consisting of

      • environmental factors that contribute to the risk of heat-related illness;

      • general awareness of personal factors that may increase susceptibility to heat-related illness (such as age, degree of acclimatization, medical conditions, drinking water consumption, and use of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and medications that affect the body's responses to heat)

      • importance of removing heat-retaining personal protective equipment such as nonbreathable chemical resistant clothing during all breaks;

      • importance of frequent consumption of small quantities of drinking water or other acceptable beverages;

      • importance of acclimatization;

      • different types of heat-related illness, the common signs and symptoms of heat-related illness

      • importance of immediately reporting signs or symptoms of heat-related illness in either themselves or in co-workers to the person in charge, and procedures the employee must follow including appropriate emergency response procedures

    • provide supervisor employee training, consisting of

      • the information required in the employee training listed above

      • procedures the supervisor must follow to implement applicable provisions of this standard

      • procedures the supervisor must follow, including appropriate emergency response procedures, if an employee exhibits signs or symptoms consistent with possible heat-related illness

      • procedures for moving or transporting an employee(s) to a place where the employee(s) can be reached by an emergency medical service provider, if necessary

Employers must address their outdoor heat exposure safety program in their required written accident prevention program (APP) – which is a general-purpose safety and health management plan required in Washington.

What are Washington’s wildfire smoke rules?

Effective June 15, 2022, L&I has adopted emergency “wildfire smoke” rules (WAC 296-62-085 through 296-62-08595). They provide the following, requiring employers to take steps to protect employees from ambient air contaminated by wildfires.

  • What situations trigger the requirements?

The requirements apply to workplaces where the employer “should reasonably anticipate that employees may be exposed to a concentration of fine particulates (PM2.5) of 20.5 µg/m3 (an Air Quality Index measure of 69) or more for wildfire smoke". However, these provisions do not apply to the following:

    • work in enclosed structures, with doors and other openings kept closed unless access and egress are required

    • work in enclosed vehicles with adequate air filtration

    • workers exposed to these conditions for no more than 1 hour per 24

    • workers subject to firefighter protection standards

  • What must employers do in these situations?

L&I requires employers to do the following:

    • Identification of harmful exposures - determine employee exposure to ambient PM2.5 for worksites covered by this section before each shift and periodically thereafter, as needed, by any of several methods specified in the rules (including Washington Department of Ecology and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) websites, or by direct measurement at the workplace)

    • Hazard communication

      • establish and implement a system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards “in a form readily understandable by all affected employees” when PM2.5 concentrations reach the regulatory thresholds noted above, and informing them about available protective measures

      • provide methods for employees to inform the employer of worsening air quality, and of any symptoms

    • Wildfire smoke response plan - must be included in the written accident prevention program, and must be tailored to the workplace and include at least the following elements:

    • Information on the health effects of wildfire smoke;

    • Information on employee rights to obtain medical treatment without fear of reprisal;

      • how employees can obtain the current PM2.5

      • requirements of these rules

      • employer's response plan for wildfire smoke including methods to protect employees from wildfire smoke

      • importance, limitations, and benefits of using a properly fitted respirator when exposed to wildfire smoke

      • how to properly put on, use, and maintain the respirators provided by the employer

    • Information and training - provide all workers with effective information and training covering required topics regarding wildfire smoke, before work that exposes the worker to a PM2.5 concentration of 20.5 µg/m3 (AQI 69) or more, and at least annually thereafter

    • Exposure symptom response - monitor employees displaying adverse symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure to determine whether medical attention is necessary, and provide for access to medical attention

    • Exposure controls - where the current PM2.5 is 35.5 µg/m3 (AQI 101) or more, the employer must implement effective exposure controls whenever feasible (the standard “encourages” this at 20.5 µg/m3 (AQI 69)). Controls include, but are not limited to:

      • providing enclosed buildings, structures, or vehicles where air is adequately filtered

      • providing portable HEPA filters in enclosed areas

      • relocating work to a location with a lower ambient PM2.5 concentration

      • changing work schedules to a time with a lower ambient PM2.5 concentration

      • reducing work intensity

      • providing additional rest periods

    • Respiratory protection - where the current PM2.5 is 35.5 µg/m3 (AQI 101) or more, the employer must provide appropriate respirators at no cost to all exposed employees (the standard “encourages” this at 20.5 µg/m3 (AQI 69)). Respirator-related requirements are consistent with standard respiratory protection requirements

Now what?

These requirements are in place in Washington as of this writing, for the summer period. If your organization has outdoor workers in Washington, it must comply with the following requirements during this period – note that many of the requirements actually call for programs that will remain in place year-round. Non-Washington employers should at least consider them as guidelines for use in evaluating protections against heat and wildfire smoke – similar requirements also exist in California (and are in place in Oregon but under litigation), and the US federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and most state OSH programs provide guidance to employers and their workers (I’ve written about heat illness prevention provisions several times, most recently HERE. I’ve written about wildfire protection HERE). Canadian occupational health and safety agencies also recognize “thermal stress” as a workplace hazard, with attention to both heat and cold.

Self-Assessment Checklist

Do any of my organization's workers work in situations where ambient heat may create a hazard of heat illness:

  • Outdoors (e.g., agricultural or construction work)?

  • Indoors (e.g., work in manufacturing or other processes involving hot materials or equipment)?

If so, does the organization provide appropriate:

  • Training (tailored to the workplace source(s) of heat hazards, preventive measures, and responses to heat illness?

  • Water?

  • Shade or other appropriate ways for workers to cool down?

  • Planning and procedures?

Does the organization occupy structures, or distinct portions of structures, which are susceptible to wildfire hazards?

If so, has the organization incorporated hazard reduction and fire safety measures into relevant structures and activities?

Does the organization include assessment of outdoor heat and wildfire hazards in the design and construction of new facilities, and in structuring of work activities?

Where Can I Go For More Information?

  • Washington L&I

- “Be Heat Smart” webpage 

- “Wildfire smoke” webpage

  • OSHA

- “Heat” webpage

- “Wildfires” webpage

  • Canada –

- Employment and Social Development Canada “Thermal stress in the work place” webpage

- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) “Hot Environments - Health Effects and First Aid” webpage

- CCOHS “Forest Fires and Wildfire smoke” webpage 


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About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 30 years. 

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

Tags: Wildfire, Heat Wave, Heat, Be Heat Smart, heat illness, Washington