Jun 7, 2023
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Air quality statements are in effect for a large portion of eastern and southern Ontario, as a result of wildfire smoke from the Quebec wildfires. Wildfire smoke can travel hundreds of kilometres and be a source of toxic air pollutants for communities far from the source of the fires. While hazy skies and smoky air may be unusual for workers living in southern Ontario, it will likely become an increasing reality as unprecedented wildfires burn across the country as a result of climate change.

Wildfire smoke is toxic and is made up of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and chemicals. Wildfire smoke and poor air quality can have a significant impact on worker health. The health effects include eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual impairment, coughing, difficulty breathing, reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbation of asthmas, increased risk of cancer, and even risk of death. Health effects may be exacerbated due to proximity to the fire, the nature and duration of work activities, and pre-existing conditions lung or heart conditions. Elderly workers and pregnant workers are also at increased risk.

Outdoor workers may be particularly vulnerable as a result of increased exposure, including workers in construction, agricultural, and landscaping, as well as transportation workers and mail and food delivery workers. Indoor workers may also be exposed as a result of opened windows or inefficient HVAC systems and air filters, for example, teachers working in portables.

Employers have an obligation under s. 25(2)(h) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, R.S.O. 1990 to “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.” The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, as well as WorkSafe BC and the Government of Alberta, provide guidance on what might be a reasonable precaution in response to exposure to wildfire smoke:

  • Evaluate the risks of wildfire smoke in the workplace and monitor smoke events and air quality
  • Eliminate or prevent exposure by rescheduling outdoor work or moving work indoors
  • Close windows and ensure that ventilation systems and air filters are maintained and effective
  • Identify workers at increased risk and reduce activities of workers with difficulty breathing
  • Introduce respiratory equipment if necessary to reduce exposure to particulates
  • Inform workers about the hazards, signs, and symptoms of wildfire smoke
  • Check in regularly with workers about both their physical and mental health

While there are few workers’ compensation decisions dealing with the impact of wildfire smoke on workers, it is likely that such case law will emerge as poor air quality and wildfires become more frequent and extreme. We continue to monitor workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety case law, as well as guidance on best practices in jurisdictions that have experience dealing with wildfires and smoke exposure, including Alberta and British Columbia (some of which are noted above).

Workers are encouraged to speak with their union representative or Joint Health and Safety Committee, or supervisor in a non-unionized workplace, about their concerns with regards to smoke exposure, as well as to seek potential accommodations for workers with pre-existing health conditions or other risk factors. Workers and union representatives are reminded that under s. 43(3) of the OHSA, workers have the right to refuse unsafe work.

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