Eastern outdoor workers caught off guard by Western-style wildfire smoke

Canada’s wildfire smoke poses a threat to outdoor workers on the U.S. East Coast, causing cancellations of sports events, school field trips, and Broadway plays due to the dystopian orange hue.

While delivery workers, construction workers, farm laborers, and railroad and airport employees on the West Coast are accustomed to the hazards of massive wildfires, those in the East were caught off guard by the novel sight of a sun jaundiced by smoke, with many workers unaware of what was happening.

With the air quality worsening, some workers, unprepared for the effects of smoke inhalation, left their jobs midday unable to continue. While most pushed through, hoping for clearer skies, they have yet to see any improvement.

A lingering weather system has settled over the region, and the smoky haze from wildfires in Quebec and Nova Scotia has persisted since Thursday and may continue through the weekend.

In response to the hazardous air quality, New York City Public Schools announced on Thursday that Friday’s classes would switch to remote instruction. While most elementary and middle schools were already scheduled to be off for a clerical day, this decision affects those still scheduled to attend. Meanwhile, Philadelphia has suspended its trash collection, street cleaning, and repairs to protect workers from the pollution.

While some companies provided N-95 masks and allowed employees to take breaks indoors, labor rights groups pushed for more protections for outdoor workers. This has brought attention to a years-long struggle that began in California and other Western states to implement greater protections for workers exposed to wildfire smoke.

Despite the “Code Red” alert in place on Thursday, food delivery workers on bicycles and scooters continued to crisscross the streets of New York City to make their deliveries.

Bimal Jhale, a 43-year-old Grubhub delivery worker, attempted to set out on his scooter to make deliveries on Wednesday afternoon. However, he was already feeling dizzy after working as a cook in a diner that morning. By evening, Jhale had somewhat recovered and tried again to make deliveries. Jhale is the father of a 5-year-old boy.

“We are taking all these risks, and still, what we are making is barely enough to survive, so we can’t afford to miss work for even one day,” said Jhale, speaking in Hindi through a translator from the Justice for App Workers organization.

Grubhub has announced that drivers will not face any penalties if they do not feel safe completing their deliveries, and it has reminded those with pre-existing conditions to stay indoors. A spokesperson for the company made this announcement.

In recent years, labor agencies in California, Oregon, and Washington have adopted rules that require employers to provide protection for outdoor workers from wildfire smoke. These protections include N95 respirators, breaks, and sometimes moving operations indoors. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill in 2021 providing farmworkers with access to the state’s stockpile of N95 masks.

While it is not uncommon for wildfire smoke to travel across the continent to the East Coast, this week’s conditions were particularly severe. In the East, there is little official guidance concerning wildfires, and there are no specific federal standards in place, although employers must protect their workers from wildfire smoke under general laws that require safe work sites.

The exposure to drifting wildfire smoke can have potential long-term and short-term financial and health ramifications for workers. According to a study conducted in last year, every day of exposure to wildfire smoke can reduce workers’ quarterly earnings by 0.1%. This adds up to $125 billion a year in lost income.

Mark Borgschulte, one of the authors of the study and an Assistant Professor in Economics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, stated that “one thing that seems really clear from our research is that the effects of smoke on labor earnings or labor market incomes will extend past the days in which the smoke is bad.” He added that adverse health effects, like heart attacks, resulting from exposure to air pollution, would impact workers for a long period of time.

Experts note that wildfire smoke contains hundreds of chemical compounds. In the short term, vulnerable individuals can be hospitalized and, in some cases, even die from excessive smoke exposure. Scientists have linked smoke exposure with long-term health problems, including decreased lung function, weakened immune systems, and higher rates of flu.

Labor activists say that even when rules are in place, getting companies to comply can be challenging. Tony Cardwell, the President of the United Transportation Union (UTU), the country’s third-largest railroad union, has clashed with rail companies over worker protections in California, even after implementing new wildfire rules. He said that the UTU’s Maintenance of Way Employees Division, which represents track maintenance workers, is sending emails this week to railroads operating in the East to seek protections, including air quality monitoring and rescheduling work, in light of the recent hazardous wildfire smoke.

Amtrak has made N95 and KN95 masks available to all employees, and in areas with hazardous air quality, the company has postponed non-critical work that requires employees to be outdoors. Norfolk Southern is conducting air monitoring and providing N95 masks to workers where needed, according to spokesperson Connor Spielmaker. Other companies have also taken similar steps, with ground crews for Delta Air Lines coming indoors in between aircraft turns to mitigate the effects of smoke exposure, according to company spokesman Morgan Durrant.

The Association of Union Contractors, which represents 1,800 construction contractors, expressed concern that the current air quality could affect jobsite safety and urged its members to take precautions. The group’s safety director, Alex Kopp, acknowledged that the severe air quality presents a new challenge. However, despite public warnings to remain indoors, the Local 3 IBEW, an AFL-CIO affiliated union that represents electrical workers in New York, reported only two job sites closing on Wednesday due to air quality issues. Some contractors are requiring masks for their workers at job sites.

Many outdoor workers were left to navigate the threat of wildfire smoke on their own. Victor Aucapina, a construction worker doing a home renovation in Brooklyn, pulled his T-shirt over his nose during a lunch break to avoid the smoke.

Aucapina kept his two young children home from school on Wednesday, but as the sole breadwinner for his family, he couldn’t afford to miss work. He was caught off guard as the skies grew more yellow by lunchtime and the scent of burning trees wafted through the area due to the smoke from wildfires.

“I didn’t think it would be so bad. Now I feel the smoke, the smell,” said Aucapina. He acknowledged that he may bring a respirator to work if the conditions do not improve, but missing work would be a last resort.

The magnitude of wildfires in the East is novel, and many workers did not initially understand the threat. Warren Duckett, a construction worker in Washington, D.C., heard about the wildfires on the radio but believed it was just a foggy morning.

However, when one of his co-workers returned home due to smoke-related sinus issues, Duckett realized the severity of the situation. Although he was hopeful that the skies would clear in the afternoon, they did not, and on Thursday air quality warnings in the capital deteriorated from “Code Red” to “Code Purple.”