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How to Balance Wildfire Smoke and Work

How to Balance Wildfire Smoke and Work

Wildfire smoke from Canada in 2023 has made the northern and eastern states in the US look like a Martian landscape at times.   If your job requires you to commute to the office, whether it’s one day a week or everyday, what should you consider before taking off for work?

First things first:  how is your employer reacting to this problem?  Employers and employees have been pivoting ever since COVID-19: office, home, office, schedules, communication, and air quality.  It’s a juggling act, and this new challenge (ok, maybe new for these areas, not so much for west coasters) is another fire drill.  Hopefully, everyone can continue to work together to get through it, safely.  Does your employer recognize that air quality from smoke is a safety concern just as much as viruses?   According to Thomas Brugato, counsel in the Washington office of Covington & Burling who focuses on environmental matters, as well as civil and administrative litigation, companies need to be asking whether the systems they have in place are “adequate to ensure protection and safe air during very bad air quality events”.  (How wildfire smoke should change the way companies think about return to office)  Generally speaking, companies have a duty to provide a safe work environment under federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules. 

How this applies to your commute

Technically, under the “coming and going rule,” employees are typically deemed not engaged in work while commuting, so generally, employers are not liable for wrongs committed during that time.  (Are you responsible for an employees’ commute?)  However, if you are in a job that has already redefined “office” because of air quality, to commute or not commute is now also an air quality decision, and hopefully an informed one!  If your employer is not familiar with the air quality reports at AirNow.gov, you’ll need to find a tactful way to introduce them in order to know what everyone will be facing on their commute. 

Even if you’re in a vehicle with the “recirculation” mode on, the outside atmosphere WILL come inside.  We’ve addressed vehicle air quality in this article, and changing your cabin air filter on a regular basis, especially with one that includes activated carbon, can drastically improve air quality in your car.  (Cabin air filters should be changed every 15,000 to 30,000 miles.)  Wearing a mask inside your car can also help with mild smoke conditions; it will not filter noxious gasses, but will help with particulates.  If you’re using a company car, try to find out when the cabin air filter was changed, and push for doing so if it’s overdue.  You can also ask for your employer to reimburse mask expenses for commuting. 

Research your route!  It may take a bit longer to drive through cleaner air, but it’s certainly worth it for your health.  Free apps like AirNow, BreezeOMeter and google maps (they have a new air quality “layer”) can show where the air quality is acceptable. 

Do you normally walk or bike to work?  In a 2017 review of 39 studies, scientists discovered a few conundrums that are worth considering: 

  • although biking and walking exposes you to less pollutants, the uptake of pollution is higher because you are breathing more frequently and deeply by reason of exercise

  • the years of life expectancy (YLE) gained by walking or biking compared with motorized transport are positive, meaning that cyclists and pedestrians actually gained years in life expectancy despite inhaling more particulates, due to the positive health effects of physical activity.  Cyclists gained more YLE than pedestrians because the average commute for pedestrians took longer.  

However, this study did not take wildfire smoke into account.  Because particulates from smoke are an additional burden, walking or biking on these days is not recommended!  Any other mode of transportation (car, train, bus, subway, etc.) would be advised over walking or biking on low air-quality days due to wildfire smoke.  If you don’t have a car or are close to public transportation, ask your employer or coworkers for help commuting during low air-quality days.

How this applies to your workplace

Although office workspaces usually have a HVAC system with a filter, sometimes they can be overwhelmed by bad air quality outside, especially if people are constantly entering and leaving, or service windows are being opened and closed.  It’s helpful to bring a portable air quality monitor with you and keep it at your workspace, to determine if air inside the building is healthy.  If particulates are high and changing the HVAC filter does not help, here are some ways to improve it:

  • recommend trying a higher MERV filter (MERV 13 should help)

  • recommend getting a standalone HEPA filter, if possible with activated carbon

  • recommend increasing cleaning during this time, as particulates settle into dust which can be disturbed and inhaled

  • If office-wide improvements are not welcomed, add a small air cleaner with HEPA and activated carbon to your space. 

  • Lastly, using a mask during the workday or part of the day is not pleasant but it is better than breathing polluted air!

If you work and are locked into being at a specific workplace, discussing air quality with your employer and coworkers can bring this problem to the forefront, and may also generate some creative solutions!

Photo by Ivan Bogdanov on Unsplash