Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Climate change and safety: treeplanters and wildfire smoke

A few weeks back, the Tyee ran a story on the effect of increasing levels of wildfire smoke on tree planter OHS. This story is interesting because it looks at the effect of climate change on worker safety.

There are several reasons why this particular hazard and worker group are worth examining:
  • Intensity of exposure: Tree planters often work in close proximity to wildfires and their work is physically demanding (increasing respiration and heart rate). Consequently, they are likely to have one of the highest intensities of exposure to wildfire smoke.
  • Duration of exposure: In addition to long working days, most tree planters live in camps (e.g., tents) and lack any respite from the smoke in their off hours. This means these workers have a much longer duration of exposure than, say, a worker who might face dust in the workplace but then go home to clean air at the end of the day.
  • Lack of specific controls or OELs: There are no specific occupational exposure limits (OELs) for wildfire smoke and general OELs for dust were not designed with wildfire smoke (which has very tiny particles) in mind.
  • Latency: Injuries due to inhalation often have long latency periods and murky causality, thus the link between the work exposure and the ill-health can be hard to see.
  • Proxy for nonworkers: The exposures experienced by tree planters can be useful in predicting larger population effects caused by increased wildfire effects (essentially the dangerous working conditions experienced by these workers create a natural experiment).
  • Compliance: PPE slows tree planting work. Tree planters are generally paid on piece-rate basis. This pay structure basically forces tree planters to trade off their own health against their need to earn an adequate income and almost certainly reduces compliance. Contractors also have production targets, which means they too have an incentive to trade worker safety for profit.
A notable take-away from the article is the complete lack of a regulatory response to the risk posed by wildfire smoke. WorkSafeBC acknowledges the risk but can’t be arsed to issue any directives. Alberta’s OHS minister couldn’t even be bothered to respond to the reporter. This likely reflects regulatory capture of regulators by the forestry industry.

By contrast, Oregon and California require air quality monitoring and the availability of respirators when air quality gets to a specific point. This doesn’t mean these controls are adequate, but they are at least something.

-- Bob Barnetson

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