Choking air, darkened orange skies, and material contamination are shuttering construction sites across California, Oregon, and Washington as ash from the mega-sized West Coast wildfires have spread all the way to New York as well as Europe and Africa.
Seattle, for instance, currently has some of the worst air quality in the world, and while air quality is improving across the Bay Area, whether or not it’s okay to resume outdoor work is still a matter of debate. However, as Construction Dive reported, in Oregon, where the air quality index (AQI) is still above 500—the limit for what’s considered hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—construction sites are only closing voluntarily. There’s no law or state order requiring that construction sites halt work at these levels, and Oregon’s OSHA branch reportedly has no plans to issue one.
“We don’t anticipate doing an emergency order at this point,” Aaron Corvin, the public information officer at Oregon OSHA, told Construction Dive. “What we’re trying to do is just get employers and workers to engage in a discussion of how to basically minimize the immediate risks.”
California lacks an upper air quality cutoff; N95 masks must be provided once the AQI hits 151 (Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups), although their usage isn’t mandatory until the AQI hits 500 (Hazardous). There are no stop-work orders or regulations requiring outdoor work cease after that, although the proximity of job sites to the actual fires themselves is prompting shutdowns too (firefighters are battling to protect historic structures from damage, much less construction sites).
Importantly, without a top-down shutdown order, contractors reportedly feel pressured to keep working. This year has been hard enough as is on the construction industry; the coronavirus pandemic has dampened construction productivity by about 18 percent, sent material costs soaring, cut into profits, and led to the establishment of new disinfection and distancing protocols at sites across the country. It’s clear why companies might be reluctant to shut their job sites down, but they’re keeping them open at the likely expense of their workers’ safety. However, some contractors might not have a choice—concrete and paint tainted with ash, and lowered temperatures from the blocked sun (leading to longer curing times for concrete) have forced some sites to close anyways.