Don Galloway wants to clarify a couple of popular beliefs about wildfires. “Usually when folks think wildfire, they think Western U.S. and large, remote areas,” the chief operating officer for the Texas A&M Forest Service said. “It’s a rural problem. It’s an urban problem. It’s something everyone should have an awareness of.”
The U.S. Forest Service defines a wildfire as an “unplanned fire burning in natural (wildland) areas such as forests, shrublands, grasslands or prairies” caused by lightning, volcanoes, or unauthorized or incidental fires started by people.
Over the past 20 years, recorded wildfires in the United States have totaled fewer than 5,000 only four times, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows. Through July, this year’s total was approaching 6,000.
Naturally, outdoor workers – including those who respond to wildfires – are most impacted, both directly (from the fires themselves) and indirectly (from smoke and fine, airborne particles dispersed by the fires). However, workers in commercial buildings and office locations near wildfires also face risks. “The smoke from wildfires can affect the air quality and poses a hazard for nearby workers and inside structures without adequate ventilation,” said Doug Parker, chief of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health – also known as Cal/OSHA.
Wildfires and worker health problems
Wildfires can have an adverse health effect on workers, especially if they have the following conditions or factors:
Respiratory: Workers who smoke are at greater risk of respiratory health issues resulting from wildfire smoke because of potentially limited lung function, said Julie Postma, associate dean for research and an associate professor at the Washington State University College of Nursing. Also, workers who have asthma are at increased risk.
Cardiovascular: Workers with angina or arrhythmia are considered high risk. “Anything that would impact the oxygenation of your blood if you’re compromised” is a potential issue, Postma said.
Age: Older adults are more likely to have an increased risk for heart and lung diseases, making them more vulnerable, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Mental health: “If you’re starting out with some mental illness or challenges, this is going to compound that,” Postma said. “It can seem apocalyptic.”Safety and Healthmagazine