MONDAY, APRIL 14, 2008

Heat rules face test

After the endless winter of 2007-08, Inland Northwest residents will be slow to see a down side to the onset of warmer temperatures.

If there is an exception, though, it may be among farm and construction workers and others who labor outside in summer’s broiling sun. And, in Washington, their employers.

Two years ago, after a Yakima-area farmworker died of heat stroke while chopping weeds in a hop field in July, it occurred to the state Department of Labor and Industries that the agency didn’t have regulations in place to address outdoor working conditions that could lead to heat-related illnesses. Indoors, yes. Outdoors, no.

Not coincidentally, the discovery of this oversight followed a move in California – where there recently had been four similar deaths – to adopt strict workplace regulations that demanded employee training, close monitoring of work-site temperatures and mitigating steps to protect against the health consequences of working in high temperatures.

To date, according to a spokeswoman for Labor and Industries, apparently sunny California and northern tier Washington are the only states to have undertaken this response.

Predictably, businesses affected by the proposed rules are protesting. The Building Industry Association of Washington calls them “ridiculously prescriptive and completely unnecessary.”

Citing the state agency’s own estimates, the construction association says compliance with the rules could cost a business with 20 employees more than $83,000 a year, plus another $50 a year per employee to train workers about such things as how to recognize the signs of heat stroke, and what to do about it if they do.

To put businesses’ reaction in proper context, it’s worth remembering that they are faced with a barrage of requirements to safeguard their workplaces against an infinite array of threats to employee health and safety. The goals may be reasonable, but the methods aren’t always practical.

In the present case, the rules are triggered when temperatures reach a certain point – as low as 52 degrees on sites were workers wear vapor-barrier clothing. There must be sufficient drinking water on hand, there must be adequate shade or other cooling means, which might include anything from tarps to air-conditioned trailers.

The agency had emergency rules in place last summer, and now Labor and Industries wants to make them permanent, with some modifications. In making their case, officials note that heat stroke is to blame for at least four worker deaths in Washington in the past decade – the same number that occurred in California in a span of weeks before that state took regulatory action.

Even one such death is a tragedy, of course, and BIA’s reaction may be a bit overwrought, but enactment of another layer of rules and regulations is no guarantee that other deaths will be prevented. In fact, the employer of the Yakima worker who died in 2005 was found by Labor and Industries to have been in violation of regulations already in place. That employer was fined $3,000, which was upheld on appeal.

Labor and Industries’ current proposal is tentatively scheduled to be adopted on June 4, and put into effect on July 5. First, however, there will be public hearings, including one in Spokane on May 1. No doubt the agency will get an earful from affected businesses. Before this rule becomes permanent, the regulators must make a compelling case why it can be expected to save lives where existing regulations failed.

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