Have you gotten used to checking the air quality on your phone as much as you check the weather? You are not alone. As of mid-July, more than a hundred million people across the US have been under “very unhealthy” air quality warnings as smoke continues to billow southward from Canadian wildfires.1  The smoke from the fires, which have raged for more than a month now, has impacted the Midwest and Northeast, and even as far south as Alabama.  This is especially concerning as the resulting air quality poses increased health risks2  and can lead to decreased cognitive function and productivity.3

During times like this, organizational leaders have a responsibility to communicate with employees about how they are addressing their health and safety. Yet, they also have an opportunity—particularly for companies in the business of health—to share all they do to protect employees, patients and the planet.

Turn down the heat. In times of crisis, internal communications should be clear, concise, informative and timely—while also giving employees peace of mind.

  • Communicate early and often: Create a multi-faceted and tiered communications plan outlining audiences (e.g., directly impacted employees, broader organization), channels (e.g., email, intranet, text message) and internal messengers (e.g., leadership, HR, people managers).
  • Shape the right message(s):

o As relevant, alert employees to accurate, relevant updates from government agencies and emergency services, as well as information on office closures, relaxation of office policies and commuter and workplace safety, based on employees’ locations.

o Share how you’re providing a high-touch experience for employees in hazardous zones to ensure safety (e.g., pollution masks, air purifiers, filtration systems) and offer employee resources.

o Explain how the actions you’re taking are helping to minimize disruption and sustain essential operational activities.

o If appropriate, educate about the risks of poor air quality and why all this matters.

See the forest through the trees. You may not realize your response to these crises is also directly related to your broader sustainability or Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) efforts. Communications with employees may offer an opportunity to reiterate your actions and commitments in relevant areas, including:

  • Employee health and safety: Employee well-being isn’t abstract, but something that is measured and reported; you have protocols to reduce the number of employee incidents, including any related to poor air quality, if relevant.
  • Emergency response: Wildfires are just one type of emergency your organization responds to; past examples of how you’ve responded to similar events (e.g., donations, volunteering).
  • Access to medicines: Actions to ensure business continuity so patients can continue getting their medicines without disruption; treatments for conditions exacerbated by air pollution (e.g., respiratory issues), if applicable.

These moments also present an opportunity to share how you are proactively working to mitigate such crises—such as by reducing your environmental footprint or ensuring responsible forest management in your supply chain. When concerns such as poor air quality are top of mind, even technical and complex climate targets may feel more tangible and relevant to employees.

Put out fires—before they start. Wildfires and air quality alerts aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact, a recent analysis from Climate Central found wildfire seasons are lengthening across the US, with some regions seeing two more months of fire weather compared to the early 1970s.4  Developing a crisis plan can help you be ahead of the curve for communicating with employees next time. Crisis plans should be:

  • Prepared: An internal governance structure comprised of key decision makers (e.g., business services, communications, HR, legal), should determine workplace health and safety plans and communications strategies so you are prepared before you are confronted with an emergency.  
  • Predictive: An assessment, updated every 2-3 years, should outline facilities at risk of being closed, as well as contingency plans for maintaining operations following any closures. Plans should include guidance on what to do if a wildfire is close enough to warrant an evacuation or if air quality in a region passes certain thresholds.
  • Progressive: After any natural disaster or other emergency that forces an office closure, an after action report should be developed to evaluate how things went. This allows for communications cascades to be adjusted and policies to be updated, as needed.

We're here to clear the air. Navigating times like this can be tough. Syneos Health® internal communications, reputation & risk management and social impact & ESG teams can help you prepare for, and respond to, these challenges in a way that authentically demonstrates your commitment to the health of people and the planet.

Daily Mail. The cities where more than 120 MILLION Americans are under 'very unhealthy' air quality alerts. 2023
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 
Air Pollution and Your Health. 2023
Industrial Safety & Hygiene News. 
How poor IAQ impacts employee safety and productivity. 2023
Climate Central. 
Wildfire Weather: Analyzing the 50-year shift across America. 2023

About the Author:

Rose Anna Kaczmarcik, MPH, has more than ten years of experience in healthcare communications. Her public health mindset has proven invaluable to consumer, pharmaceutical, biotech, and non-profit organizations looking to reach and engage key influencers. She has extensive experience with corporate social responsibility (CSR), stakeholder engagement and public health advocacy. Rose Anna has a background in chemistry and healthcare ethics and received a Master of Public Health from Boston University.