‘Exposed to toxic smoke and ash’: Proposed law would increase workplace protections amid wildfires

By Kim Bojorquez for The Sac Bee

Multiple wildfires, toxic smoke and a global pandemic haven’t prevented Marco Siorda, a 29-year-old farmworker, from working in the fields of Imperial County.

Despite being part of a critical workforce that puts food on the table for many Californians, Siorda said his employer doesn’t offer masks to protect him from inhaling toxic wildfire smoke. Instead, he said, he must bring a mask from home to prevent putting his health at risk.

It’s why some Democrats and members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus are pushing for a bill that would seek to increase workplace protections for farmworkers from poor air quality caused by California’s wildfires.

Assembly Bill 73, also known as the Farmworker Wildfire Smoke Protections Act, would designate agricultural workers as “essential workers” to allow them access to the California Department of Public Health’s stockpile of N95 masks. A similar bill was introduced last year by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, that allowed health care workers and other essential workers to access the state’s N95 mask stockpile amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill was passed unanimously during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing this week.

One 2020 study conducted by the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at UC Davis found the increase of severe wildfires in the state pose serious health risks for California’s agricultural workers exposed to ash. Researchers of the study recommended that policymakers pay close attention to the “health risks of farmworkers working in areas recovering from a wildfire and/or in areas with repeated wildfires.”

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