The recent wildfires raging across the Western United States, including Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and California, have raised employers’ awareness of their need to be prepared to deal with the impact of these events on their businesses and on their employees. Wildfires are unique among natural disasters in that they can last for weeks or even months, they come with little to no advance warning, and, unlike other weather events, they can occur anywhere – no region of the country is immune from the threat of wildfire.
Under OSHA’s General Duty Clause, each employer is responsible for the safety and health of its workers and for providing a safe and healthful workplace. This includes protecting workers from the safety and health risks associated with wildfires. Employers can avoid or mitigate the devastating consequences of wildfires and other severe weather events by being prepared in advance.
If you do not already have an emergency action plan, you should develop a plan designed to prepare your business for unexpected natural disasters. This will help you and your employees take fast action during a workplace emergency and reduce the number and severity of both property damage and employee injuries. The plan should include, at a minimum, emergency notification and evacuation procedures, procedures for employees who must remain to perform critical operations prior to evacuating, and a means of accounting for all employees following an evacuation. The plan should be communicated to all employees.
In addition, employers affected by wildfires are encouraged to monitor air quality and, if indicated, move employees indoors, provide them appropriate respiratory PPE, or even close down operations until air quality has improved. Employees with pre-existing respiratory conditions or who develop respiratory conditions as a result of poor air quality may be entitled to special protective equipment as an ADA accommodation or an FMLA leave of absence due to their serious health condition or to care for a family member whose serious health condition is exacerbated by the wildfires. National Guard members and other military personnel may also be entitled to a leave of absence if they are called to perform emergency duties related to the wildfires.
These are just some of the considerations that employers must consider when the harmful effect of a wildfire affects business operations. Employers Council attorneys and HR professionals are available to assist you to weather the impact of wildfires on employment-related matters.