Washington Plans To Distribute Hundreds Of Thousands Of Masks To Farmworkers As Smoke Persists

Workers in dust masks wash fresh red bell peppers in smoky conditions outside of Eltopia, Wash. Even with the masks, the smoke is still causing tight chests, itchy eyes and dry throats. CREDIT: ANNA KING/N3
File photo. Workers in dust masks wash fresh red bell peppers in smoky conditions outside of Eltopia, Wash., in 2018. CREDIT: Anna King/N3

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Wildfires across the West continue to inundate the Northwest with hazardous smoke. For those who work outside, that means long hours of exposure and hazardous working conditions.

Farmworkers continue to pick apples in the height of the Washington harvest – even as the sustained smoke makes it hazardous to be outside, especially while doing strenuous work or exercise.

Even so, Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday the state has no plans to stop or restrict agricultural work as has been done due to the pandemic.

“I don’t believe we have seriously considered such actions,” Inslee said Tuesday during a news conference in response to a question about protections for agricultural workers.

But as he was answering, a member of his staff gave him additional information.

“It’s just been pointed out … My staff says we have had some efforts to see if we can get some respirators out to folks. I don’t know the status of that,” he said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks in a news conference on Sept. 15, 2020. CREDIT: TVW/Screenshot

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks in a news conference on Sept. 15, 2020. CREDIT: TVW/Screenshot

The governor’s staff followed up after the briefing, saying more than 200,000 masks have been distributed to agricultural worksites.

The masks in question are KN95, a Chinese standard of masks similar to U.S.-made N95 masks.

Sticking to his longtime lines about climate changing being a major factor in fire, Inslee first said the state is focused on bringing relief to farmworkers in the long run.

“We’re trying to stop climate change so that climate change won’t make these fires so intense. We’re breathing climate change right now and so are farmworkers,” he said.

Farmworker advocates from Yakima and Wenatchee have also been actively distributing KN95 masks to agricultural workers in Central Washington.

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