This research was funded by the Washington State Labor Research Grant of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.

Report written by grant recipient, Lilian Liu, MS


Outdoor workers are at increased risk of exposure to wildfire smoke and its health effects such as shortness of breath, chest tightness, asthma, eye irritation, and exacerbation of cardiorespiratory and COVID-19 symptoms. In response, Washington State Labor and Industries (WALNI) established emergency wildfire smoke rules in July 2021 and June 2022, which both were in effect during the “wildfire season” for around 3 months, to provide temporary workplace safety and health rules aimed at protecting workers from wildfire smoke. Our research assessed stakeholder engagement and sentiment towards this emergency rule, and the experiences of labor organizations, employers, and workers with the implementation of the new rule.

A comparison of Washington, Oregon, and California’s wildfire smoke rules was conducted. Additionally, we used a qualitative data analysis approach and performed sentiment analyses of comments provided during agency-led stakeholder meetings before the 2021 emergency rule was enacted. Additionally, we interviewed key informants and conducted an online survey after the emergency rule to assess attitudes toward the rule and potential implementation challenges.

Rules among the three states have similar scopes, but have different PM2.5 action levels, with Washington State having the lowest, an AQI of 69. Risk communications and exposure controls also vary. Stakeholders from WALNI meetings generally demonstrated positive attitudes toward topics, such as “action level” and “air quality monitoring”, and negative attitudes toward “COVID-19”, “heat”, and “other states’ rules”. Topics such as “respirator” and “trigger level” had the most variation in sentiment. From interviews with key informants representing a variety of industries, administrative levels, and workplace conditions, we learned that participants tend to have negative attitudes toward personal and workplace wildfire smoke impacts, and positive sentiments to rule implementation. Survey results revealed respondents’ worry about the health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure at work. Some respondents received lower income due to wildfire smoke, yet most employees reported working the same amount of time regardless of the smoke condition. The COVID-19 pandemic cast a greater economic impact on employment status and conditions than wildfire smoke.

Overall, the results showed variations between states’ wildfire smoke policies and mixed sentiments toward Washington state’s emergency rule and implementation. Survey findings reflected rule implementation challenges and workers’ perceptions of the wildfire smoke, heat, and COVID-19 impacts on their safety, health, and work conditions. These findings highlight important themes and concerns that impact wildfire smoke preparedness and compliance with worker protections. Responding to these themes is likely to improve stakeholder engagement for future permanent rulemaking efforts, currently underway in 2023.

Findings from this research will be reported in a scientific publication currently in preparation.