In the post-pandemic landscape, a number of industries are concerned about a Cal/OSHA emergency regulation passed in 2019. The agency wanted to protect outdoor workers by requiring employers to supply N95 respirators when the air quality index (AQI) hits an unhealthy level due to wildfire smoke. Yet the pandemic has fueled a run on the masks, driving up the price tag and the cost for regulatory compliance. 

The Cal/OSHA board heard these concerns and more at a meeting on Thursday about extending the emergency regulation.

“The need for N95 respirators will continue to grow as we put more stuff in the ground to grow,” said Bryan Little of the California Farm Bureau Federation. “At some point, we're going to crash into wildfire season, which may this year apparently coincide with the fall flareup of COVID-19.”

The regulation was written when the masks were 75 cents. After contacting 20 suppliers, Little could not find anyone selling masks for less than $6 each.

Alternatives to N95 respirators are becoming available, but they don’t carry the national certification, pointed out Michael Miller of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

Cal/OSHA also requires training related to wildfire smoke. One company reported the cost for training its 40,000 employees was $1.2 million, according to Elizabeth Treanor, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, which is a group of companies tracking regulations like this. Others raised questions over how employers would know if the AQI is triggered by a wildfire or something else.

In response, a staff scientist at the agency said the spike in demand is likely to be short-lived, with costs going down as more masks are produced. He said Cal/OSHA, however, is assessing this and the other concerns and will release new guidance if a supply shortage occurs during a wildfire.

The agency has extended the emergency regulation and expects it to become permanent once the wildfire season is over in late fall.