Geese swim in front of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial as haze covers the Tidal Basin on June 8 in Washington, D.C.

Geese swim in front of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial as haze covers the Tidal Basin on June 8 in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images

‘Protect the Health’ of Employees Amid Poor Air Quality, OPM Reminds Employees

Wildfires in Canada have encased much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic in smoke and haze, raising health concerns for commuters and employees who work outside.

As smoke from Canadian wildfires moves into the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States, triggering air quality warnings in several cities, the Office of Personnel Management on Thursday reminded agencies to protect the health of federal workers who ordinarily may work or commute to work amid the hazardous haze.

New York City experienced “hazardous” air warnings and orange skies for much of Wednesday as smoke from the fires migrated south, according to AirNow, an Environmental Protection Agency-run website with information about local air quality. On Thursday the Washington, D.C. area experienced “very unhealthy” air, with a period in the morning where experts warned that air was “hazardous.” Those conditions were expected to continue Thursday and into Friday. 

The Biden administration postponed until the weekend a LGBTQ+ Pride event on the White House lawn that had been scheduled for Thursday, due to the air quality warnings. And the National Park Service announced on Twitter that it was “scaling back” employees’ outdoor work and encouraging visitors to stay indoors.

The Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. was closed on Thursday: 

OPM on Thursday stopped short of issuing an operating status alert to curtail agency hours or encourage telework, as it often does in instances of inclement or dangerous weather in the D.C. area. But it issued guidance to agency leaders to remind them of their duty to “be proactive in protecting the health and wellbeing of our federal workforce.”

In a memo to agency heads, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja “strongly encouraged” agencies to ensure that employees with high-risk medical conditions are not harmed by dangerous air quality and to employ workplace flexibilities like telework to protect workers.

“Agencies are encouraged to permit employees, particularly those with high-risk medical conditions, to telework from home on a day when air quality conditions are dangerous,” she wrote. “Additionally, if permitted by agency policy, an employee working a flexible work schedule may choose to adjust arrival and departure times to avoid commuting during hours when the air quality may be worse. Employees may also request the use of annual leave, earned compensatory time off or credit hours on a day when the air quality is threatening to an employee’s health and welfare.”

According to The Washington Post, a second cloud of smoke is expected to enter the mid-Atlantic region Friday morning. But a low-pressure weather system over Nova Scotia, which has been sending the smoke southward this week, is expected to drift south, allowing the clouds to disperse over the weekend.