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Worker safety under an orange sky

The American flag on Nassau Hall flies in front of an orange sky with a very red sun.
The American flag on Nassau Hall with an orange sky.
Courtesy of Alexander Norbrook.

Twice this summer, an orange haze of incinerated Quebecois pines descended on Nassau Hall. The sun burned an ominous red, a wrathful pinprick in the sky. My throat stung each day that the smoke engulfed campus, and at night I would wake up coughing. Later, as students returned to campus, we were met with scorching temperatures for the first week of school.

The wildfires in Canada and the record summer heat waves across the country were sobering reminders that nowhere is safe from the climate crisis, not even temperate New Jersey. As temperatures rise and fires continue to blaze hotter and larger, Princeton must swiftly adapt and create new policies for workers. To do this, Princeton should look beyond just the student body, to construction workers and outdoor Facilities employees, who are the most at risk in extreme weather events but also have the fewest protections. 

In June, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Mercer County reached a terrifying 467, far above the cutoff for “hazardous air” of 300. But walking around campus, I saw many construction workers and outdoor Facilities workers carrying on as normal. The University encouraged scheduled events to move indoors, but that was not an option for many outdoor workers constructing buildings — they continued to work on the Art Museum, Dillon Gym, and other University construction projects in toxic air. Later in the summer, these same workers suffered under the hottest national temperatures on record. 

As our climate collapses, smoky skies and searing days will only become more common. This change is dangerous for our outdoor workers. “Workers are literally risking their lives to work in this kind of heat,” said Professor Susan Marquis, the Charles and Marie Robertson Visiting Professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, in an interview. “Heat illness is tremendously dangerous,” Marquis, who studies heat illness policy, continued. “You’re seeing more and more cases of this in the United States.” The same is true for lung damage following wildfire smoke events. 

Our approach to workers’ climate safety has been scattered. Princeton requires the contractors involved in campus construction to take care of their workers on their own, but there aren’t sufficient federal or state requirements to enforce adequate protection. Moreover, their wildfire policy is almost nonexistent. Princeton’s protocols for their own workers similarly neglect clear wildfire smoke protocols. To better protect our outdoor workers’ safety, Princeton can follow the lead of states with stronger worker safety regulations. 

Currently, the University requires that their construction contractors “manage their own health and safety programs and provide the appropriate protective equipment and protocols,” according to an email from Derek Ziegler, Assistant Director for Emergency Preparedness. Many of Princeton’s hired contractors, including building groups Skanska, LF Driscoll, and Turner, follow guidelines to protect workers from extreme heat, like increasing the frequency of breaks and providing water. These companies did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

These policies are strong first steps. But because they are not backed up by government regulation, they aren’t enforceable by law. State safety policies concerning extreme heat fall far short — in fact, they don’t exist at all in New Jersey. At the federal level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn’t require any safety regulations related to heat at all, only offering recommendations for workers when temperatures exceed 91 degrees. As these are only recommendations, rather than “mandatory and enforceable” rules, Marquis argues that it can be “difficult for workers, those who contract for services, and the community to hold employers accountable.”

Worse still, Princeton’s contracted construction companies lack policies around wildfire smoke in the first place. None of the aforementioned companies’ manuals provide guidelines (much less mandates) in their safety manuals for their workers and managers on how to stay safe in hazardous AQI situations. This vacancy is unsurprising; major wildfire events are new for the east coast of the U.S., and even state and government policy hasn’t caught up. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends that employers monitor air quality and limit employees’ exposure to wildfire smoke. But this is only a recommendation; once again, there is no federal policy that legally protects outdoor workers from exposure to wildfire smoke events.

For its own workers, too, Princeton lacks a clear wildfire smoke protocol. The University’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) website only indirectly addresses outdoor worker protection in the case of high AQI from wildfires. EHS’ Outdoor Worker Safety guide does not include information or specific guidelines around wildfire smoke safety. Moreover, though Ziegler said that EHS encouraged “those working outside to take extra precautions,” he did not list any more concrete strategies or hazard thresholds for when certain precautions must be followed. 

The lack of adequate policy became dangerous this summer, as Princeton had a disorganized response to wildfire smoke. They distributed N-95 masks to the campus community at four locations and encouraged outdoor workers to take “extra precautions,” according to Ziegler. But, the lack of clear protocol meant that Facilities workers continued to work outdoors, breathing in vaporized chemicals and dangerous particles all the while. 

Princeton’s disorganization feels inevitable among some outdoor workers on campus. Robert Agostini, a builder working on the renovation of Prospect House, seemed resigned. “We’re just going to have to work through it,” he said, referring to the extreme conditions. “It’s scary. But what can you do?” 

Fortunately, Princeton can do more to protect its workers, both contracted and directly employed, in the absence of federal or state mandates. Its approach must be twofold, applying to both directly employed Facilities workers and campus construction workers who are contracted through companies like Skanska, Turner, and LF Driscoll. 

First, to keep contracted workers protected in extreme heat conditions, Princeton can vigilantly watch their contracted construction companies to ensure they adhere to their own heat guidelines. This is especially important when there are no federal protections, whose absence makes it harder to enforce safety guidelines.

Further, to mitigate the potential injuries from wildfire smoke, Princeton should follow the lead of state policies from California and Oregon, which require employees to train workers on the risks of wildfire smoke and to offer “schedule changes, relocations or other interventions to reduce exposure” during such events. Where reducing exposure is not possible, these states require that employers provide high-quality masks at no cost to all employees. And when AQIs surpass a certain threshold (in the case of California, a threshold of 501), employees are required to wear these masks when their work cannot be avoided. Princeton should consider similar threshold figures across all stages of its hazardous air quality policy to add clarity to its guidelines and regulations. Beyond its own direct employees, Princeton should encourage its contracted construction companies to develop strong guidelines around wildfire smoke that model these state regulations. 

The University, and New Jersey as a whole, don’t have these policies because we simply haven’t needed them before. But this summer made it clear; we have a new, unpredictable climate, which requires us to act. While we work to slash carbon emissions, we must also protect our campus communities from the heating that has already occurred – especially the people who make the University run, but whom we so often overlook. Stronger environmental safety measures represent a strong first step in that direction.

Columnist Alex Norbrook (he/him) is a sophomore from Baltimore, Maryland, intending to major in history. He can be reached at