Guidance for employees working in smoky conditions

The past week has been difficult with wildfires threatening our state and plumes of smoke from wildfires in Oregon and California rendering Washington’s air unhealthy. Wildfire smoke in our region will continue today, and will likely begin to dissipate toward the end of the week . Because wildfire smoke can cause a range of health problems, including chest pain, coughing, fast heartbeat, headaches, and asthma attacks.

With our current unhealthy air conditions, it’s recommended that you limit your time outdoors; however, some people need to be outdoors for their work or other responsibilities. If you are concerned about doing field work in these conditions, please consider the below tips and guidance from Balanced You:

Talk to your supervisor about possible options to reduce the amount of time you spend outdoors by performing desk work or alternate work assignments on smoky days. Departments should evaluate planned field work to determine whether some work should be postponed, where possible, to later in the week when conditions are expected to improve.

The air quality level can change quickly, so check air quality conditions regularly and if possible, adjust your schedule to avoid travel and working outdoors during periods when air quality is the most impacted by smoke conditions (keep in mind air quality is typically the worst in the middle of the day during wildfire smoke).

If you must work outdoors, limit time outdoors to a minimum
and find a safe location to breathe filtered air while maintaining social distancing during breaks from outdoor work. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be more difficult to find public spaces to take clean/cool air breaks this year.

Drink plenty of water.  If it’s difficult to refill your water bottle during the day, pack enough in each morning, aiming for at least 64 ounces per day.

If you have medical conditions that could be worsened by wildfire smoke, consult with your medical provider and speak with your supervisor to work out the best options for your work schedule on smoke days. You may be able to use accrued vacation or comp time when there is wildfire smoke instead of reporting to your designated work location. You may request leave, subject to approval by your supervisor. If you have no leave accrued, your supervisor may approve leave without pay to cover absences. Please refer to HR Bulletin 2011-0009 County Operations During Emergency Situations and Inclement Weather to learn more.

Remember: It is not known how much protection cloth face coverings or surgical masks provide from wildfire smoke. N95/N100 masks can provide protection to some people when worn properly but can also worsen conditions for people with existing respiratory conditions. Due to COVID-19, N95/N100 masks may not be available and those available are in need by medical professionals.

KN95 masks are available through your agency’s Safety Officer where needed. Safety Officers may contact Fleet Stores for masks at

If you are working indoors or would like tips for cleaning your air at home, Public Health has provided some guidance on How to Keep Indoor Air Clean on Smoky Days. More information from Public Health – Seattle & King County about wildfire smoke and your health can be found here. Additional information from WA Department of Health and EPA on indoor air filtration during wildfire smoke can be found here and here.

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