Wildfire Smoke Health & Safety

What are the risks of wildfire smoke?

Wildfires are becoming more prevalent, devastating and enduring in British Columbia. Wildfire smoke is a seasonal occupational hazard for many workers.

Wildfire smoke is defined as a complex combination of fine particulate matter and chemical gases. Some particulates in wildfire smoke can be particularly harmful as they can penetrate deeper into the respiratory tract.

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What are the health hazards associated with exposure to wildfire smoke?

People may feel mild exposure symptoms such as a sore throat, shortness of breath, and irritated eyes. Wildfire smoke may cause headaches and worsening allergies. An individual that feels difficulty breathing or coughing should contact their supervisor and discuss concerns with their health care provider.

The potential for long-term health effects from wildfire smoke is highly variable depending on the worker. Age, individual susceptibility, level and duration of smoke exposure are all factors that influence the potential for long-term health effects. Employees who have a pre-existing medical condition, are pregnant, or have specific concerns about working are asked to speak to their supervisors who can then assist with the appropriate corrective actions, if necessary.

The level of risk from wildfire smoke exposure depends on:

  • The location of work (indoors vs outdoors).
  • The type of activity being performed (i.e. physical activities will lead to inhaling more air).
  • The duration of the activity being performed.

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What needs to be done to work safely during elevated wildfire smoke periods?

Workers who work outside are particularly affected by wildfire smoke, as physical exertion can increase air intake up to 20 times.

Wildfire smoke can also contribute to heat stress and low visibility risks.

If a worker is or may be occupationally exposed to wildfire smoke, site specific safe working procedures must be developed and communicated.

General Guidance

  • Identify and evaluate occupations, areas or tasks where the potential for exposure to wildfire smoke exists.
  • Become familiarized with the local Air Quality Health Index for obtaining health risk levels.
  • Inform workers about the hazards and exposure signs and symptoms of wildfire smoke, and train on how to minimize exposure to wildfire smoke.
  • Have the necessary materials, tools and equipment, PPE and other resources required to minimize exposure to wildfire smoke.
  • Employees who have concerns about workplace exposure to wildfire smoke and their health should contact Occupational & Preventive Health.


Once the risk of wildfire smoke has been identified and assessed, the appropriate hierarchy of controls must be implemented from most effective to least effective, in order to ensure the risk is eliminated or mitigated.

Elimination or Substitution

This is the most effective risk control, and may include stopping and rescheduling work based on the conditions. However, if wildfire smoke is present in some activities elimination or substitution is often not possible.


Engineering controls aim to minimize the exposure to wildfire smoke through physical modifications to facilities, equipment, and processes. Examples of engineering controls are:

  • When working in a car, turn on air conditioning and set the air on recirculate. This can reduce exposure to smoke.
  • Outdoor activities should be limited and moved indoors where feasible.


Administrative controls are those that aim to control or minimize exposure to wildfire smoke using work methods and work procedures. Some possible administrative controls are:

  1. Safe work procedures – Implement and communicate site specific safe work procedures to account for wildfire smoke exposure. The safe work procedures must be readily available for reference by workers.
  2. Scheduling and relocation – Check the local Air Quality Health Index and air quality advisories and relocate work to less smoky areas, or reschedule until the air quality improves.
  3. Limit time working – Set time limits for workers to work in areas where they may be exposed to wildfire smoke based on the guidelines/recommendations established by the local Air Quality Health Index.
  4. Schedule more breaks.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

PPE should only be considered if the other, more effective, controls are note feasible. If extreme poor air quality conditions have been identified, respirators may be required depending on the level of the smoke and the work activity performed. Appointments for respirator fit testing, and other respiratory information, can be arranged through Safety & Risk Services Respiratory Safety.

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UBC Resources

Additional Resources