A paycheck is not worth a life, period. When people are hurt and killed at work, our staff at the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) and I take it incredibly personally.
Most workplace hazards and the injuries or illnesses they cause are predictable and preventable. That includes extremely hot weather, which is a significant safety risk for outdoor workers we count on to grow our food, pave our roads, and construct our buildings. Clearly, employers can’t stop the heat, but they should expect it and must protect their workers from it.
Washington is one of just three states with rules to protect against excessive heat exposure. But as climate change makes summers in Washington hotter, heat waves with temperatures above 100 degrees are only going to become more common.
Workers across the Pacific Northwest have suffered heat illnesses ranging from dehydration to death. This is an urgent issue. We’re tackling it in several ways, including an emergency rule enacted this summer that requires additional proactive steps to keep workers safe from heat.
Businesses with outdoor workers must train them to stay safe in hot conditions and have a written outdoor heat exposure safety program. Employers must respond appropriately to employees with symptoms of heat-related illness: removing them from duty, getting them into a place to cool down, and monitoring them to see if they need medical care. When companies don’t follow the rules, we will take action. It all comes down to water, shade and rest. At 89 degrees, employers must provide an adequate amount of drinkable water and ensure workers get paid time to cool down when they need it in the shade, at misting stations, or in air-conditioned trailers.
Resting in the shadow of crops that trap heat and increase humidity or in a hot car without air conditioning isn’t enough.
At 100 degrees or higher, paid cool down breaks of 10 minutes or more at least once every two hours are mandatory, and there must be enough shade for all the workers on break at any given time. These emergency rules are an important temporary measure to increase protections on construction sites, in fields, or in other outdoor work settings. Since the current permanent rules were written years ago, extreme heat has become more common. Those rules need an update, and we’ve started that process. We’ll invite workers, advocates, and businesses to give input on how to better protect workers. The best available science will inform our decisions. Based on research and rulemaking in California and Oregon, we expect to lower trigger temperatures, among other changes. A full rulemaking process will comprehensively address this evolving issue. We’re also making sure employers know their specific responsibilities to keep workers safe, and
informing workers about what they can do to protect themselves and their co-workers. With funding from Governor Inslee and the Legislature, we’re creating an agriculture team for education and enforcement. L&I will be on work sites enforcing rules and ensuring employers provide workplaces safe from hazards including heat. Heat puts workers in danger – undermining the bedrock principle that everyone deserves to come home from work safe and healthy. As one of only three states in the nation with outdoor heat rules, we have a foundation to build upon. As conditions on work sites and in fields or orchards evolve, protections must evolve as well. Our emergency rule is one step in revisiting our existing rules and providing better protections for workers. Along with our permanent rule-making process and new agriculture safety team, these changes will help L&I make sure Washington works safely.
Joel Sacks is director of the Washington state Department of Labor & Industries.
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