Ahead of wildfire season, Washington Farm Bureau has been lobbying against emergency worker health protections

In June, the state labor department introduced first-of-its-kind air quality rules for employers. The farm lobby says they are “not necessary for the preservation of public health, safety, or general welfare.”

Pictured above: Volunteer firefighters practice with hand tools during a wildfire training course on May 8, 2021 in Brewster, Washington.

In mid-June, the Washington Farm Bureau, the state’s largest agricultural lobby group, began calling on its members to push back against emergency wildfire protections for workers—ahead of what is already shaping up to be a particularly severe fire season in the Pacific Northwest.

“Immediate adoption of a rule is not necessary for the preservation of public health, safety, or general welfare,” the organization wrote in a comment to the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (LNI), on behalf of its 47,000 members, many of them farm owners. “There is not sufficient literature demonstrating an acute health hazard or any adverse health outcome due to occupational exposure to wildfire smoke.”

On June 14, LNI released a draft of proposed safety rules meant to protect people who work outdoors from exposure to wildfire smoke. The rules would require employers to monitor and inform workers of hazardous conditions, and to provide respiratory protection when pollution levels cross a certain threshold. The proposal is an interim measure while LNI embarks on a lengthier process to adopt permanent wildfire smoke protections.

”I just push through the sore throat and the headache, but I do worry about the future, health-wise.”

LNI attributed its rulemaking efforts to concerns about the health risks posed by wildfires, which have grown more frequent and powerful on the West Coast in recent years.

“The agency recognizes the hazard of wildfire smoke exposure is increasing every year and is now potentially presenting important health risks to all outdoor workers including those in construction and agriculture,” it wrote in rulemaking filings.

In response, the Washington Farm Bureau asked members to submit comments to oppose the protections, which it called “an unacceptable abuse of power.” (A comment submitted by the organization after press time has been appended to this story.)

Last summer, Washington saw the second most devastating wildfire season on record, burning over 713,000 acres. That’s equivalent to more than half a million football fields. At the time, The Counter interviewed a farm worker in Tri-Cities, Washington, who was harvesting apples amid the fires. He said that he had only a cloth mask to protect himself, and that his employer did not offer breaks despite the hazardous air quality. 

“I just push through the sore throat and the headache, but I do worry about the future, health-wise,” he told The Counter. 

Under the draft rules, employers would be required to allow workers suffering from symptoms of smoke exposure to seek medical care.

Officials are concerned that this year’s wildfires could set new records. The state has already put out 410 blazes on public lands, the highest year-to-date number on record, The Seattle Times reported. Wildfires in the region are fueled in part by warmer and dryer conditions, two consequences of the ongoing climate crisis. (Ironically, the national Farm Bureau has played an influential role over the past few decades in legitimizing climate denialism and lobbying against legislation that would limit greenhouse gas emissions.)

Under the draft rules, employers would be required to allow workers suffering from symptoms of smoke exposure to seek medical care. They would also mandate that employers make an effort to reduce exposure, such as by moving workers to other locations, altering their work schedules, providing breaks, and reducing work intensity. Employers would also be responsible for providing workers with N95 or KN95 respirators, which can filter particulate matter.

The rules would classify smoke pollution levels as harmful based on a region’s Air Quality Index (AQI), which employers can monitor through state or federal forecasts. AQI is calculated based on the concentration of tiny particulate matter, including those emitted by wildfires, in the air over a given period of time.

LNI’s draft rules propose setting a hazard threshold at an AQI of 69. Federal regulators categorize this as “moderate,” meaning it may not be concerning to the general public but could pose some risks to sensitive groups. In its rulemaking, LNI included people with asthma, the elderly, and those recovering from Covid-19 among what it considered sensitive groups. (LNI did not respond to a request for comment.)

But the Washington Farm Bureau argued that the proposal’s consideration for sensitive groups was overly broad.

“Many farm workers are older and at risk already.”

“This draft rule is based on the imagined needs for a sensitive group,” the Washington Farm Bureau wrote in a list of talking points sent to its members. “All other industry rules are written for healthy adults.” The organization is calling on the agency to set the exposure threshold to an AQI of 151, which federal regulators classify as hazardous for the general public.

Farmworker advocates disagreed, pointing out that workers and sensitive groups are not mutually exclusive.

“Many farm workers are older and at risk already,” said Edgar Franks, political director of farmworker union Familias Unidas por La Justicia.

California is the only other state with wildfire smoke protections in the U.S., which were enacted in 2019. The hazard threshold there is set at an AQI of 151. But Franks argued that regulations in other states shouldn’t serve as a de facto limit on the strength of protections in Washington. “We should always aim for the best standards in the nation.”

The comment period for the wildfire smoke protections closed earlier this week, and LNI is set to release final regulations sometime this summer. Just how much the agency will take the Farm Bureau’s criticism to heart remains to be seen.

Update, July 6, 2021, 5:30 PM: Following the publication of this story, The Counter received a comment from Washington Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Bre Elsey, challenging LNI’s authority to pursue emergency rulemaking for wildfire smoke protections under state law. Elsey also noted: “This rule is particularly impactful because it seeks to implement the strictest outdoor occupational air quality standard in the nation. While this would impact a lot of industries, it’s likely to impact agriculture the most. Rules of this magnitude deserve robust public engagement. This process is moving so fast that most of the employers who could be fined under these new rules don’t even know this is happening. If the employer isn’t aware this is happening, does a two week timeline improve workplace safety or just bypass public dissent? I’m left questioning the department’s intent.”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.