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Oregon adopts emergency rules to protect workers from wildfire smoke, labor housing occupants from heat

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 3, 2021

An orange afternoon due to 2020 wildfires in Washington County.  (Jeff Manning)
An orange afternoon due to 2020 wildfires in Washington County. (Jeff Manning)
By Jamie Goldberg The Oregonian

PORTLAND – Oregon adopted emergency rules Monday intended to protect workers from wildfire smoke and provide relief to those living in labor housing during bouts of extreme heat.

The rules, which take effect on Monday and remain in place for six months, are intended as a temporary measure while the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health administration, known as Oregon OSHA, drafts permanent versions.

The new rules require that employers make an effort, whenever feasible, to change work schedules or relocate work when air quality levels reach “very unhealthy” levels of 201 or higher on the air quality index, which measures air pollution.

If employees will be exposed to air quality levels above 201, employers must ensure that workers wear N95 respirators. For this year, employers can substitute those respirators with KN95 masks as long as air quality levels are below 499. (The air quality index doesn’t track levels above 500.)

Employers must also maintain an adequate supply of respirators when air quality levels exceed 101, which is considered unhealthy to sensitive groups. Employers are required to alert workers to air quality hazards and train workers who may be exposed to air quality levels above 101 of the health risks of wildfire smoke and emergency procedures in place to protect workers. Those trainings must take place before Aug. 16.

The wildfire rules also apply to employer-provided labor housing, except for the portion of the rule that requires employers to ensure that workers wear N95 respirators when air quality levels surpass 201.

Employers whose employees work in indoor workplaces or vehicles where air filtration takes place are exempt from the new rules. Those employers, however, must ensure that windows and doors remain closed when air quality deteriorates, except when people are entering or exiting.

Unprecedented wildfires across Oregon last September highlighted a potential gap in Oregon’s workplace regulations, which didn’t detail how employers should respond to extremely poor air quality. Many workers remained on the job with limited protection last year as air quality across the state reached hazardous levels.

On Monday, Oregon OSHA also announced that it is adopting rules requiring employers to provide cooling areas for workers living in labor housing when outside temperatures reach 80 degrees and temperatures below 78 degrees cannot be maintained inside labor housing units.

It’s common for migrant farmworkers, in particular, to live in communal housing maintained by their employers.

The cooling areas can be common areas or outdoor areas with shade and cooling devices. Employers will also be required to block windows during the day to keep housing units cool and offer fans to occupants at no cost when temperatures inside the housing units exceed 78 degrees.

The new rules come a month after the state adopted emergency rules to protect workers from extreme heat in the wake of an unprecedented heat wave at the end of June.

At least two Oregon workers died of suspected heat-related illnesses after working through the heat wave. The state is investigating the deaths of two other Oregon workers who died during the heat wave as possibly heat-related. The state didn’t have rules in place during the heat wave specifically requiring employers to provide sufficient cool water, shaded areas with room to sit or extended breaks.

Gov. Kate Brown directed Oregon OSHA and the Oregon Health Authority to develop a proposal for standards to protect employees from excessive heat and wildfire smoke in March 2020. It was part of a broader executive order mandating that certain state agencies engage in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The permanent rules were delayed due to the pandemic and aren’t expected to be in place until the fall.

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