Outdoor workers endure wildfire smoke and hazardous air quality

NEW YORK — Joel Bolenzo, a security guard at an office building in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, is used to standing outside and breathing in air filled with exhaust fumes, dust and other city pollutants. But nothing compares to the last two days.

“It’s horrible,” Bolenzo, 23, said Thursday, once again in his outdoor post, but this time wearing a mask. “It’s like being next to a barbecue and smoking all the carbon that comes out.”

From dog walkers to delivery drivers, landscapers to farm workers, many outdoor workers have plowed through this week, even as smoke from Canada’s raging wildfires creates poor air quality up and down the East Coast. Their predicament reveals how outdoor workers are more vulnerable than any other category of workers when it comes to climate change.

Heavy smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted across the Northeast on June 8, leaving hazy skies and spreading health concerns from New York to Washington. (Video: The Washington Post)

Around the world, these men and women are more likely to get sick and die from exposure to extreme heat, which can be exacerbated by increased humidity. From construction workers in Nepal to sugarcane harvesters in El Salvador to landscapers in Las Vegas and moped riders in India, working outdoors poses major health risks. Workers can overheat, suffer long-term damage to the kidneys, or breathe unhealthy air, which can cause major respiratory illness.

This week in the US, as Code Red and Purple Alerts proliferated in areas where millions of Americans live, some workplaces took steps to limit their employees’ exposure to polluted air.

Major League Baseball postponed several games this week. A restaurant owner in Philadelphia Closed Outside food at some locations to avoid harm to staff. City of Allentown, Pa., Sent Home of Parks and Recreation workers. Amtrak was one of several companies that made masks available to workers who wanted them, and said it was delaying “non-critical” work in areas deemed hazardous.

“If it’s possible, I would encourage you not to work out,” says Panakis Kaliatsatos, MD, a pulmonologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a spokesperson for the American Lung Association.

But he also knows that for many in the path of wildfire smoke this week, that option simply isn’t a reality. “If people have to work outside, take proper precautions to stay safe,” he said.

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These include wearing a high-quality, tight-fitting mask outside, staying hydrated, and putting off any work that can wait a couple of days. Those who drive more vehicles for work should ensure that the air conditioner circulates only indoor air, he said.

Joel Kaufman, a University of Washington epidemiologist and physician, said the harmful air quality fueled by wildfires doesn’t affect everyone equally. Older workers and those with pre-existing conditions generally face greater risks than healthy, younger workers.

“This country has an aging workforce. “People who work outside are not always under 20,” Kaufman said. That’s why employers have a responsibility to think carefully about the risks to all employees.

“From an employer’s perspective, you really have to be very conservative,” Kaufman said. “If the guidance is that it’s dangerous for all people, then you really shouldn’t be sending people to work in that situation.”

But in fact, despite the thick, dirty and dangerous winds that spread across hundreds of miles, outdoor chores plowed unabated for many on the East Coast this week.

Keith Garrett, 37, was selling fruits and vegetables at Philadelphia’s famed 9th Street Market on Thursday. He wore a mask around his chin as he sold bunches of asparagus for $1 each and bananas for 50 cents a pound. Trade has come down significantly, he said.

“There’s nobody outside,” he said. “They caused panic and told people to stay inside.”

Some states in the West, where wildfires have historically been more common and disruptive, have taken steps to protect workers exposed to toxic air each year. In recent years, Oregon, California and Washington have adopted laws requiring employers to provide protection such as N95 masks to protect workers when wildfire smoke degrades air quality — and, if possible, move workers indoors in some cases.

But so far there are no such comprehensive standards at the federal level.

Data shows that millions of Americans rely on time outdoors as part of their livelihoods.

By 2020, According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.3 percent of civilian workers had to spend more than two-thirds of their workday outdoors, including landscaping workers, construction workers and highway maintenance workers. Another 15.1 percent, including preschool teachers, truck drivers, carpenters and reporters, must be outside for a third of their workday.

As climate change fuels more intense wildfires, stronger storms and more freezing heat waves, outdoor workers around the world will often face more challenging conditions, scientists have warned. But many governments have resisted taking action, as businesses have fought stricter standards that make it more expensive to operate.

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A warming planet is “making warmer regions even hotter and drastically reducing the amount of time people spend outdoors, meaning some outdoor workers cannot work as much time as needed, resulting in lower incomes,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said. wrote In a detailed report last year.

On Thursday, some workers were left wondering what might have happened decades ago, instead trying to endure the changes of smoking before them.

Some Targets stopped curbside deliveries amid the fog, according to Adam Ryan, founder of the unaffiliated group Target Workers Unite. But at least one location in Northern Virginia, service remained open, an employee said Thursday. She asked if the store could disable the “pull up” option for customers, but her manager said no.

“It’s very difficult for me to do that because I have asthma and I’m recovering from Covid,” said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job.

Target did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment.

Several workers walked off the job at a Trader Joe’s store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side Wednesday afternoon, according to Jordan Pollock, a labor organizer and a board member.

The air inside the store began to smell thick and smokey, she said, and she saw an orange sky as she looked up the escalator leading to the street. “It felt incredibly apocalyptic,” Pollock said.

Managers refused to close the store because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not declared an emergency, Pollock said. A Trader Joe’s manager declined to comment on the walkout, referring reporters to the company’s corporate office.

Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Nakia Rohde said “nothing is more important” than employee and customer safety, and all of its stores, including the location where the walkout took place, have “high-quality air filters” that are regularly serviced. “Yesterday a few team members indicated they were uncomfortable completing their scheduled shifts. As is our usual practice, any team member wishing to go home is welcome to do so.

Many delivery workers said the chaos unleashed by wildfire smoke brought them back to the early, chaotic days of the pandemic, when businesses and schools were closed but they were largely left to fend for themselves.

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On his way to Brooklyn on Tuesday, UPS driver Matt Leichenger said he had to take a minute to start his truck after a nasty gust of wind hit his face and made his eyes water. By Wednesday afternoon, as conditions worsened and an orange haze blanketed the city, Leichenger said he felt dizzy and nauseous. He loaded the back of his truck so he couldn’t see the box numbers clearly.

Leichenger, a part-time organizer for the Teamsters union, said her phone was inundated with messages from workers sharing information about poor air quality. But he said UPS gives workers little guidance on how to protect themselves. “It felt contagious again,” he said.

In a statement, UPS said it is taking measures to monitor drivers, including distributing masks to employees in affected areas and following other local guidelines. “The well-being and safety of UPSers is our first priority,” it said.

Joshua Wood, a delivery driver in New York City, said that with fewer drivers on the road and more office workers staying home, delivery apps encourage drivers to work with the potential for higher pay. But that unconsciousness puts them at greater risk.

“Days like today show how vital these workers are to the city’s economy,” said Wood, who also works as an advocate for labor rights and fair wages for utility distribution workers.

For Pedicab biker Mamadou Barry in Central Park, the wind has taken a physical and financial toll. On Wednesday, as the sky turned orange and city officials warned people to stay inside, Barry came out to drive customers around the park, trying to make money.

But there were no tourists, and one ride he took was cut short early when Barry and the guest couldn’t stand the smell of smoke. Barry tried for a few more hours, but because his throat was dry and the customers were mostly elusive, he had to go back to Brooklyn, missing a day’s pay and feeling exhausted.

On Thursday, he returned to his outpost in Central Park, and though the fog was less, business was still slow. He lowered his rates in an attempt to attract customers.

“If we’re not out there, we’re not making money,” he said.

Natalie Pompilio, Justin McDaniel and Ian Livingston contributed to this report.

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