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Caton: Occupational Exposure to Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19 Risks

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The last several years have been marked by the unprecedented frequency and extent of wildfires in California and other regions of the country.

Trina Caton

Trina Caton

The individuals who work at the front lines of these disasters are a rare breed who regularly face unimaginable conditions to reduce wildland damage and keep others safe. While repelling the powerful forces of wind-driven flames, wildland firefighters do their strenuous jobs in an atmosphere filled with acrid smoke.

A recent review by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has identified that conditions wildland firefighters encounter could put them at greater risk for transmission of infectious diseases, including COVID-19. The factors influencing the higher risks include:

  • Living and working in close quarters with others.
  • Limited access to hygiene supplies in remote fire camps.
  • Extensive travel to respond to incidents around the state and country.
  • Arduous work for long hours in hazardous conditions.

Breathing the very small particles in wildfire smoke, known as particulate matter (PM), is a significant hazard because the particles reach the deepest parts of the lungs. At that point, it is very difficult to clear them out.

Evidence for the connection between smoke inhalation and lower respiratory disease is considerable. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, preliminary studies have found a positive association between COVID-19 infection and PM exposure. While more investigation is necessary, one theory is that viral clusters stick to PM and are breathed deeply into the lungs. This potentially results in increased transmission of the disease and causing changes to the body’s immune response that leads to more severe illness and mortality.

Firefighters may encounter the greatest risks from PM, but it is not the only occupation that can be affected by PM during wildfires and greater COVID-19 exposures. Anyone who works outdoors and must be in close contact with others could risk a higher chance of contracting COVID-19.

Although outdoor infections have been rare and more people are now vaccinated, the NIOSH review suggests smoky air increases transmission of the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) produced an infographic illustrating measures that wildland firefighters can take to reduce their COVID-19 risks while responding to wildfire incidents. The mitigation strategies can also be applied to workers in other occupations that are exposed to elevated PM while working outdoors and in groups. You will probably recognize most of these steps as mirroring the public health measures in place throughout the pandemic.

Please refer to our earlier blog piece, “Where There’s Wildfire, There’s Smoke,” for additional information about wildfire smoke hazards, responding to outdoor workplace air quality, and the impact of smoke for the general public.

Trina Caton is assistant vice president in Keenan’s loss control Department and is based in its Rancho Cordova, California, office. This entry is republished from Keenan's blog.

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