A joint statement from CUPE Ontario’s Climate Justice and Health and Safety committees
The impacts of climate change are happening now. In Canada, we are seeing longer duration of heat events, droughts, increasing frequency of severe storms and shorter snow and ice cover seasons. These changes have resulted in an increased number and severity of wildfires.1 Wildfires and the smoke caused by these fires affect all people’s physical and mental health, particularly historically disadvantaged communities, including Indigenous populations and people with disabilities.2 Poor air quality from wildfires can affect inside and outside workers, even though they may be hundreds of miles away from the source. Regardless of the distance or source of outdoor air pollutants, employers in Ontario have a general duty to ensure that all reasonable precautions are taken to protect workers from the hazards associated with poor air quality.
Wildfire smoke is an occupational hazard
It is well known that wildfire smoke at any level presents a human health hazard. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety reports3 that wildfire smoke is made up of fine particulate matter and gases containing hundreds of chemicals, which may have toxic levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Depending on the fire source, smoke may also contain known carcinogens, including sulfur oxide and VOCs. Other chemicals found in wildfire smoke, include heavy metals and hydrocarbons, may persist in the environment for a long time.4
Wildfire smoke can cause short and long-term health issues.5 Mild symptoms include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat and headaches. More severely, wildfire smoke exposure can worsen allergies and lead to persistent coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and increased mucous production.6 Workers who suffer from certain medical conditions may be aggravated on poor air quality days, especially those with weakened respiratory and cardiovascular systems.7 Pregnant and older workers are especially at risk.