Dilemma of The Month: How Employers Should Handle Dangerous Air Quality

Back Q&A Feb 7, 2019 By Suzanne Lucas
With the horrible fires in California last year, air quality became unhealthy, even reaching hazardous levels. I’m the HR manager of a small business, and we ended up closing our office and sending employees home on an especially bad day. But I fear this won’t be the last time we face the quandary of bad air quality and I want to be prepared for future events. What are employers expected to do for employees when the air quality is dangerous? Are we legally obligated to close when the air quality is so bad?

Even hundreds of miles away from the Camp Fire in November, the air quality suffered, and businesses had to decide how to react. In many towns, businesses — including Amazon’s Sacramento fulfillment center — shut down until the air improved.

The question of legal obligation to shut down comes with a caveat — I’m not a lawyer, but even if I were, the answer will always be “it depends.” Even the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that regulates workplace safety, says, “Currently, OSHA has no indoor air quality standards.” But you can go to www.AirNow.gov or www.SpareTheAir.com (for the Sacramento region) to find out if your outdoor air is at dangerous levels, and then buy detectors to make your own judgments based on the results.

Despite the lack of a bright line from OSHA, the agency does require that companies “provide workers with a safe workplace that does not have any known hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious injury.” So, dangerous air quality is not something you can ignore. Polluted air can cause everything from asthma flare-ups, aggravated heart and lung conditions and — in the long-term — lung cancer.

Regardless of natural disaster, your air conditioning and ventilation systems should be checked and cleaned regularly. And, after a critical event like the recent fires, you should immediately check your filters to make sure they don’t need changing sooner, rather than on their normal maintenance schedule.

Related: Clearing the Air

Related: Safety First

If your company operates outdoors (or you have an outdoor event planned), and the air quality is terrible, you’ll want to cancel. Sometimes, that isn’t practical though or easy to determine. If you have a warehouse with big doors to let trucks in and out, are you an inside or outside operation? Make sure you’re testing your air quality. Safety is important, as is the comfort of your employees.

As for indoor air quality, here are some guidelines to help you determine what to do in the case of unhealthy pollution levels.

Consider the commute. Everyone is concerned about breathing in unhealthy air, and even though people’s houses may be in the same city as your office, the commute requires them to not only go out in the dirty air but continue to contribute to the problem by driving their cars. If your employees start asking, don’t dismiss their concerns.

Working from home. Depending on the nature of your business, having as many people as possible work from home may alleviate health concerns. You may need to adjust your telecommuting policy, especially if you have non-exempt employees eligible for overtime pay. How will you make sure their working hours are recorded properly? Legally, it doesn’t matter whether they are in the office or not, they need to be paid for all their time.

Consider the schools. If the schools in your area are closing, you may want to consider following their example — for two reasons. One, you have a governmental office determining that the air conditions are critical. Two, your employees have just lost their childcare. Like it or not, one of the functions public schools play is childcare and without them, you’ll have employees that have to stay home regardless of what you decide.

If you can’t shut down or telecommute. The California Board of Health recommends providing your employees with N95 respirators, which are designed to filter out the polluted air. Surgical masks won’t help. Keep in mind that these masks have to be used properly — which involves making sure they fit. If you keep some on hand, make sure you know how to use them.

Remember the ADA. Bad air affects all of us, but it can afflict those with health conditions more severely, especially people with heart or lung conditions. While not all heart and lung conditions are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you should consider that allowing someone to stay home when the air quality is at dangerous levels is always a reasonable accommodation. It’s not going to be permanent, so unless you are willing to stand up in court and declare that your business absolutely, positively could not function without Jane with the heart condition, you should be considerate of all people whose health is especially vulnerable.

It’s not just the air. It’s also the stress. When you have a natural disaster — even hundreds of miles away — it can be emotionally difficult. Your employees may have family or friends who are directly affected. So, always be kind and err on the side of safety.

While the danger from the Camp Fire has passed, there will be problems in the future. You can hire an occupational safety and health attorney to help make sure your plan for bad air quality days is legally sound.