What your business needs to know about the state’s new wildfire smoke workplace rules

Dann Mead Smith
As summer approaches, unfortunately so does wildfire season in our state.  Our summer days and nights will be impacted by the smoke that these fires produce even if they are hundreds of miles away from where we live and work. It is something that we have learned to adapt to especially over the last few summers.  This is especially the case for those that work outside whether it is in farming, construction, hospitality or landscaping services.


The State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) is currently finalizing “emergency” rules that will be in effect from June 1st until the end of September and will apply to workers who are outside at least 15 minutes in an hour, which means this is something that may impact your business and workers even if you initially didn’t think that your business would be covered.  It’s important to know about these new, statewide regulations and then voice your concerns, both for these emergency rules, which allows L&I to implement them without having to assess the cost to business, and during the regular rulemaking process that will probably take place over the summer which will lead to permanent rules for future summers.

As The Capital Press recently reported, “The rule will carry over some emergency rules from last summer’s heat-exposure rule, but will also introduce new requirements, including mandatory paid breaks… and Employers will have to provide a shady place to sit and supply ‘suitably cool’ water or sports drinks.” 

Some businesses have expressed concerns that the state (through the Dept of Labor and Industries) is undertaking emergency rulemaking when no emergency is present.  We all know that summer is coming and with that wildfire season so there should be a regular rulemaking process. This would provide adequate time for business and workers themselves to provide input as well as a cost/benefit analysis of the proposed rule rather than a rushed emergency rule. 

  • Why did the agency not go through this process last fall right after last year’s wildfire season?  They have had months to develop new regulations rather than propose a new “emergency” rule a few weeks before it will go into effect. 
  • And why was this issue not addressed during this year’s legislative session when the Governor and our elected representatives could have played a role?  This is instead another example of unelected bureaucrats making decisions with no accountability.


The Building Industry Association of Washington that represents small and large construction companies across the state said more rules “only add complexity for Washington builders with little or no added protection for workers.  We’re also concerned they’re proposing an emergency rule when they started the permanent rule-making process nearly a year ago and had plenty of time to adopt rules under the proper process.”

Businesses, of course, agree with the goal of protecting workers who have to conduct their jobs outside. The problem is with the process and that any protections should be created with scientific evidence, review, common sense and cost-benefit analysis, which are not aways part of emergency rulemaking (and in this case when there is no “emergency”).  Having another emergency rule without a full process places a heavy burden of compliance, planning, and investment of supplies and training on employers of all sizes.


It’s not too late for the Department of Labor Industries to hear from you.  I would also encourage you to contact the Governor’s office as well as your local legislators as they should also hear your thoughts even if they do not have a direct role in this process (though they should).   And as mentioned above, the regular rulemaking period for this issue will probably move forward throughout the summer and include a formal public comment period which the Whatcom Business Alliance will keep informed you about.

Click here to look up your elected officials and how to contact them.


Dann Mead Smith of The Mead Smith Group, that is working with organizations such as Project 42, a new nonprofit created to change the course of Washington state. Dann lives part-time in Birch Bay, Washington.