The growing threat of wildfire smoke and impact it could have on daily operations
Wherever you live in Canada, you’ve likely seen the news headlines or even the haze of smoke in the air. The Canadian government declared this past wildfire season the most severe on record, due in part to warm temperatures and very dry conditions.
A record-breaking 152,809 square kilometres burned across Canada in 2023, blanketing large portions of North America in smoke. Wildfire smoke not only degrades air quality and reduces visibility, but it can pose serious health risks. The fine, small particles in the smoke can get deep into the lungs and bloodstream and cause respiratory problems and exacerbate existing health conditions and cause health problems.
Here’s what you can do to strengthen your organization’s resilience and help prepare for any wildfires in the future.
Wildfire smoke & health risks to employees
Wildfire smoke can impact business operations in several ways including by creating health and safety concerns for employees.
Milder symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure can include headaches, a cough, a runny nose, or eye, nose, and throat irritation. More serious symptoms can include dizziness, chest pain, severe cough, shortness of breath, wheezing (including asthma attacks), and heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats.
As air quality worsens, The Lung Association of Canada says wildfire smoke can:
- Irritate the eyes, lungs, throat, and sinuses,
- Increase the risk of a heart attack,
- Trigger headaches or allergies,
- And reduce lung function.
Some people with lung conditions (such as asthma) may be more susceptible to air quality fluctuations and may experience other significant health impacts because wildfire smoke can:
- Trigger an asthma attack,
- Worsen chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),
- And worsen pneumonia.
Wildfire smoke can also cause disruptions to your operating hours if you need to close to protect employees or it can cause supply chain disruptions if the smoke is affecting transportation routes.,
Ways to prepare your business for wildfire smoke
According to Dr. Talia Varley, Cleveland Clinic Canada’s Physician Lead of Advisory Services, there are a number of key actions companies can take to help prepare their organization for the effects of wildfires to help minimize the impact, reduce service disruptions, and protect the health and well-being of their staff.
Here are six steps, compiled in part from Dr. Varley’s recent Harvard Business Review article, that you can take to prepare your organization for the impacts of smoke from wildfires:
- Monitor air quality. Check the air quality health index for your area and monitor Canada’s smoke forecast.
- Improve indoor air quality management. Ensure the ventilation systems, heating ventilation and air condition (HVAC) system, and air filters at your business are maintained and minimize smoke particulates.
- Plan for outdoor workers. Provide outdoor workers with well-fitted respirator masks to help reduce exposure to the fine particles in wildfire smoke. However, it’s important to note that masks do not reduce exposure to certain gases in wildfire smoke. It might be necessary to relocate workers or reschedule work to when the air quality gets better.Special considerations may be needed to accommodate individuals who are more susceptible to air quality fluctuations (such as those with asthma).
- Consider the commute. Employees could also be exposed to wildfire smoke during their commute and should use caution if smoke reduces visibility when they are driving.Consider remote work options or remind them to drive with the windows closed using the ‘recirculate’ air feature in their vehicle.
- Educate and communicate. Train and educate employees in smoke procedures and keep supervisors informed about the hazards so they can communicate effectively with workers.
- Health check. It is important to regularly check in with your staff about their mental and physical health, as coping with poor air quality can be challenging and can have impacts on psychological and emotional well-being.
Mental health gaps: How your plan can better support employees
Building a more resilient business
Each year there are about 8,000 wildfires in Canada and smoke can travel for thousands of kilometres.. Preparing for wildfire smoke is not only a matter of health and safety, but it may also be an important strategic priority that could have positive effects in supporting your staff and maintaining business continuity.
By monitoring air quality conditions, maintaining indoor air quality, considering the needs of employees who work both indoors and outdoors, educating and communicating with your staff, and checking in on the health of your workers, you can strengthen the resilience of your organization and put the health and well-being of your staff first.
Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace medical advice.
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https://hbr.org/2023/06/is-your-company-prepared-for-the-effects-of-wildfires , 2023
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https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/publications/healthy-living/how-prepare-wildfire-smoke.html , 2023