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Mercer Marsh Benefits

Supporting workers during wildfire events

Explore essential strategies for safeguarding your workforce during wildfire events. Learn about workplace policies, air quality management, respirators, healthcare access, emergency leave, remote work, and proactive communication.

In many regions, dry conditions have become synonymous with something both tragic and hazardous — wildfires and the devastation they bring.  

Recently, we saw a major wildfire event unfold in the United States on Maui[1], 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[2] more than a dozen US states were under health advisories[3] 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[4].

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[5]. 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[6]. Top health concerns[7] 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[8].

Studies are also starting to qualify and quantify the effects of wildfires on mental health[9], 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.

Protecting your employees

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[10] (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.

Workplace policies

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:

  • Evaluation of wildfire risks to people and property
  • Conditions that will activate the plan
  • Chain of command
  • Contacts for emergency personnel, such as the fire department, law enforcement, and medical services
  • Emergency functions and who will perform them
  • Specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits
  • Procedures for accounting for personnel, customers, and visitors
  • Procedures for providing information to personnel regarding the status of the wildfire
  • Equipment for personnel

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.

Facility management

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:

  • Natural ventilation through open windows and doors.
  • Mechanical ventilation through bathroom or kitchen fans that vent to the outdoors, or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems with a fresh air intake.
  • Infiltration through small openings, joints, cracks, and around closed windows and doors.

Before wildfire season starts, businesses should develop a smoke readiness plan to help ensure they can keep employees safe during a smoke event. ASHRAE[11]recommends that this plan include the following:

  • Conduct a full maintenance check on the HVAC system and make repairs if needed.
  • Evaluate the ability of the HVAC system to handle a higher efficiency filter, such as a MERV 13.
  • Purchase smoke preparation supplies, such as portable air cleaners and extra filters.
  • Optimize system air flows.
  • Add supplemental filtration at the intake air vent where possible.
  • Assess filter conditions by adding a port or pressure gauge to measure the filter pressure drop on at least one air-handling unit.
  • Weatherize the building to limit smoke intrusion.
  • Add the ability to monitor indoor PM2.5 by purchasing air sensors designed to measure the pollutant.
  • Determine how to create temporary cleaner air spaces within the building.
  • Anticipate sources of indoor PM2.5, such as cooking, vacuum cleaning, use of printers or copiers, and smoking, which can increase levels of PM2.5 within the building.

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%[12], 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.

Supplying respirators

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:

  • The EPA recommends choosing either a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certified N95 or P100 respirator for the highest level of exposure reduction.
    • Although KN95 dust masks are not NIOSH certified, they have equivalent filtering performance to N95 respirators. However, they often lack gaskets around the nose or use ear loops instead of head straps, which can result in a poorer fit.
    • Paper surgical masks, other types of dust masks, and face coverings that were commonly used during the COVID-19 pandemic will not give adequate protection from the very small particles in wildfire smoke.
  • When allowing respirators for voluntary use, employers must provide employees with the advisory information in Appendix D of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard[13].
  • Wearing a respirator, especially if it is hot or employees are physically active, can increase the risk of heat-related illness. Ensure that your policies allow employees to take breaks often, drink water, and go to a place with cleaner air where they can remove the respirator as needed.

Benefits outside the workplace

Healthcare access

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[14], 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.

Leave and remote work policies

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.

Taking proactive steps to keep employees safe and healthy

Wildfires are becoming more widespread globally[15] 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.

About the authors

Senior Consultant, Health, Mercer, US

Tabit Xthona Lee

Senior Consultant, Mercer Marsh Benefits

  • United States

Therese Perrette

Therese Perrette

Consulting Director, Workforce Health, Marsh, US

  • United States