Tabit Xthona Lee
Senior Consultant, Mercer Marsh Benefits
Recently, we saw a major wildfire event unfold in the United States on Maui, which resulted in the deaths of around 100 people, destroyed over 2,000 structures, and burned nearly three and a half square miles of the island. Fires in Greece resulted in the deaths of two people but destroyed over 12,000 acres of land more than a dozen US states were under health advisories issued due to fires burning hundreds of miles away in Canada. The Canadian wildfires in particular are a reminder that consequences can be localized to the fire zone yet affect regions that are far beyond.
Although wildfires are not a new phenomenon, their frequency is projected to rise by 50% by the end of the century, as referenced by research from the World Meteorological Organization. Additionally, their impact is felt across the globe. Severe burn injuries and death are possible immediate outcomes of a wildfire, yet some health impacts can be more far-reaching, affecting not only anyone directly exposed to the flames, smoke, ash, and extinguishing materials, but also populations for whom traveling wildfire smoke negatively impacted air quality. In Indonesia, there has been a 20% increase in patients with respiratory diseases as a result of intensified fires and smoke. Top health concerns include reduced lung function and increased cardiovascular risks due to particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air. Additionally, wildfire smoke can cause injury to the eyes and immune systems. These health impacts are often not proportional to exposure ̶ individuals with preexisting health conditions tend to be disproportionately affected.
Studies are also starting to qualify and quantify the effects of wildfires on mental health, and these indicate that leaving an area or losing a property due to a wildfire can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.
An organization’s top priority must always be its people. When the worst happens, employers must ensure that they have the resources to help their employees manage to cope with the terrible loss of family, loved ones, homes, and community.
The U.S., through the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), along with many other countries, are responsible for the safety and health of their employees and for providing a safe and healthy workplace. This responsibility includes anticipating any hazards that workers may face, including exposure to wildfire smoke. These hazards can be reduced through knowledge, safe work practices, and appropriate personal protective equipment.
Although OSHA currently has no federal standard for wildfire smoke exposure, California and Oregon have requirements for the protection of employees, which include air quality monitoring, training, communication, engineering, and administrative controls to reduce exposure, as well as provisions for dust masks.
Below, we have outlined key actions that employers can take to help keep their employees safe and healthy, through workplace policies, facility management, benefits outside the workplace, and proactive communication.
Emergency response and evacuation plans
Anticipating wildfire emergencies means having an emergency response and evacuation plan in place before one occurs. An emergency response plan can help avoid confusion and prevent injuries. A thorough emergency response plan should consider:
Review the emergency response and evacuation plans with your employees annually to help ensure all workers know what to do in case of an emergency. Practice these plans on a regular basis and update them based on any lessons learned from these exercises.
Air filtration/HVAC maintenance
Even though local officials may advise people to stay indoors during a smoke event, some of the smoke from outdoors can still enter buildings, negatively impacting the air quality inside. Outside air can flow into facilities in the following ways:
Before wildfire season starts, businesses should develop a smoke readiness plan to help ensure they can keep employees safe during a smoke event. ASHRAE recommends that this plan include the following:
Also, be sure to test the HVAC system prior to the start of wildfire season.
Portable air cleaners can be used alongside HVAC systems to maximize the reduction of indoor particles. During a wildfire smoke event, portable air cleaners fitted with high-efficiency filters may reduce indoor particle concentrations by as much as 45%, according to research by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Choose a portable air cleaner based on the size of the area in which it will be operated, filter efficiency, frequency of use, and fan speed. Do not choose an air cleaner that is listed as an ozone generator, as ozone is a harmful air pollutant.
When worn correctly, respirators can reduce exposure to wildfire smoke and are a valuable tool for employers with any outdoor workforce, or any employees experiencing health effects from a smoky environment. It is crucial for them to fit snugly on the face.
A few considerations when choosing respirators:
When employees are worried about their personal safety or their ability to afford healthcare for themselves and their families, it is inevitable that these concerns will affect their well-being and work performance.
Given the health impacts of smoke, healthcare access is one of the most important benefits an employer can offer its employees. Globally, only 50% of full-time employees have access to medical coverage through their employer. For employers that do offer insurance, 21% of employees continue to find healthcare unaffordable, according to Health Trends 2023 from over 17,000 employees.
Prior to experiencing a wildfire event, employers should assess the support system for their workforce
Source: Mercer Marsh Benefits Health on Demand 2023
— can employees afford to seek the support they need, do health systems in the region have the capacity to see increased numbers of patients, and do employees have access to virtual health offerings if they are displaced from their community or unable to safely leave their home? Additionally, employers should consider the mental health resources and trauma support available to employees.
Employers can be creative in the ways they support their workers during moments that matter. They can consider implementing emergency plans that waive cost protection structures during emergencies, such as reduced cost sharing/copays or temporary removal of prior authorization processes. Employers may contemplate picking up premiums for health coverage to reduce opt-outs, as well as offer special allowances, mental health crisis response services, and greater digital health options.
Employees impacted by wildfires may not be able to work standard schedules. During these events, it is important to have policies on emergency leave in place — is there a separate pool of hours, and do employees have to use paid time off or sick time? Having answers to these questions in advance of an emergency simplifies the experience for employers and employees.
Additionally, employers should consider offering remote or flexible work arrangements. Commuting during times of high smoke can be dangerous for employees — even if they are traveling from one indoor location to another. Smoke and low air quality can cause school closures, requiring parents to miss work. Supporting alternative work schedules can be essential to limiting business interruption during extreme weather events.
Lastly, proactive communication is always a crucial component of a crisis mitigation plan, as it is necessary to notify employees both of the risk status and the available supporting employer policies. Workplace safety and benefits teams need to work together to make sure employees have access to clear information.
Prior to the event, employers should consider purchasing and familiarizing themselves with mass notification tools so that they can quickly send out information and directions to their employees in targeted areas. Some of these systems include the ability to poll employees on whether they are safe or need assistance, thereby helping employers to better assess the situation. Additionally, employers need to be cognizant of employees’ ability to access these notifications and determine if creative methods are needed to reach employees without independent technology access.
Wildfires are becoming more widespread globally and represent a risk that requires better preparation from all employers. To protect employees and mitigate the risks associated with wildfires, employers can take the proactive steps that we have shared here. If you have questions about specific facilities or benefits for your workforce, reach out to your Mercer and/or Marsh consultant for further discussion.
Senior Consultant, Mercer Marsh Benefits
Consulting Director, Workforce Health, Marsh, US