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WA rolls out emergency heat protections for outdoor workers: ‘These new rules are strong’

June 3, 2022 Updated Sun., June 5, 2022 at 9:14 p.m.

A supervisor looks up at a worker pulling honey crisp apples off trees June 16, 2020, during a thinning operation at an orchard in Yakima, Wash.   (Spokesman-Review wire archives)
A supervisor looks up at a worker pulling honey crisp apples off trees June 16, 2020, during a thinning operation at an orchard in Yakima, Wash.  (Spokesman-Review wire archives)
By Daisy Zavala Magaña Seattle Times

Just in time for searing summer temperatures, the state Department of Labor and Industries has released new emergency rules to further protect outdoor workers from the dangers of heat and wildfire smoke.

The new rules will require Washington employers to provide outdoor workers adequate cool water and access to shaded areas, as well as paid cooldown breaks every two hours – or more often, if needed, when temperatures hit certain benchmarks.

The protections will go into effect for most workers when temperatures hit 89 degrees, marking a significant change from the triple digits required for some vital safeguards in 2021.

Workers who wear certain kinds of clothing will be covered by protections at temperatures well below the standard 89 degrees, as well. The protections will kick in at 52 degrees for those who wear vapor barrier clothing or chemical resistant suits, for example. For people wearing double-layer woven clothes – including coveralls, jackets and sweatshirts – the threshold will be 77 degrees.

The rules will take hold June 15 and last through September. But they’re only in place this year: L&I is drafting permanent regulations, and efforts to create the first federal heat protection standards for outdoor workers are also underway.

“The record-setting heat wave last summer underscored the importance of protecting outdoor workers,” Craig Blackwood, L&I’s assistant director for the Division of Occupational Safety & Health, said in a news release. “Add in the smoke from more frequent and devastating wildfires, which is a proven hazard, and it’s a recipe for danger every summer.”

Last June’s record-shattering temperatures caused over 180 heat-related deaths in Washington and Oregon, including a worker, Sebastian Francisco Perez, who was found dead at a blueberry farm south of Portland.

Yakima Valley farmworker Florencio Gueta Vargas also died in August while working in a hops field, and heat was ruled a contributing factor.

Heat-related deaths are preventable, and climate change is exacerbating the dangers of outdoor work, said Elizabeth Strater, United Farm Workers director of strategic campaigns.

“(Employers) should not just be given a financial penalty for them to listen when people are being pushed too far,” she said.

Heat-related mortality is 35 times higher among agricultural workers than in any other industry, according to a systematic review on the effects of climate change and heat stress on farmworkers.

The new heat rules, released Wednesday, build on existing protections demanding employers provide enough drinking water, at least a quart every hour for each outdoor employee, by specifying that water must be cool, according to L&I.

Employers will also be required to provide adequate, nearby shade for outdoor workers and give them a paid 10-minute cooldown break every two hours when temperatures reach 89 degrees.

The new rules will also require employers to monitor air temperatures, regularly check for signs of heat-related illness among workers and implement a peer check-in system or something similar to monitor for heat illness symptoms.

L&I also clarified that employers must encourage employees to take paid breaks to cool down as needed.

If a worker shows symptoms of heat-related illness, employers must ensure they stop working, provide them a way to cool down and determine whether they need medical attention.

Signs of heat-related illness include heat rashes, muscle cramps, headaches, excessive sweating, dizziness and confusion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Existing rules already require employers to train employees on outdoor heat exposure safety and appropriately respond to workers experiencing heat-related illness symptoms.

‘These new rules are strong’

The United Farm Workers petitioned L&I to pass emergency heat rules this spring following the expiration of last year’s emergency rules, Strater said.

Growers in the tree fruit industry say most work stops when temperatures reach 90 degrees, so as to not damage the fruit. But UFW volunteers who visited nearly 50 Yakima Valley worksites in August noticed work continued amid higher temperatures – possibly violating some of last year’s emergency rules, which went into effect at 100 degrees.

“When you have these rules that are set freakishly high, like 100 degrees, that is where you’re going to start seeing employers that are going to roll the dice,” Strater said. “These new rules are strong, so I’m hopeful.”

Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said growers were given ample time to prepare for the changes brought on by this year’s emergency rules after being given only days to get ready for the 2021 protections.

He praised the variety of ways L&I will allow growers to check in with their workers, allowing the growers to make plans for their specific workplaces, though he cautioned that some rules that are recommended but not required could lead to confusion.

“It shouldn’t be an inconvenience for most growers” to implement, DeVaney said of the emergency rules. “We’d prefer to see these rules be hashed out and put in a permanent form so that everyone can understand them.”

Wildfire smoke rules

L&I’s wildfire smoke emergency rules will also go into effect June 15 and run through September, requiring employers to monitor air quality and take steps to protect workers from wildfire smoke, which contains fine particles that can reach the deepest parts of the lungs, causing serious health problems.

If the Air Quality Index hits 69 – when people sensitive to lower levels of particle pollution should limit time outside and strenuous activity – employers will be encouraged but not required to limit workers’ exposure. They can do so by reducing hours, rescheduling work or relocating employees to an area with better air quality.

L&I also encourages employers to give workers access to enclosed buildings or vehicles where the air is filtered, provide free respirator masks for voluntary use, reduce work intensity or provide more breaks.

When the Air Quality Index reaches or exceeds 101 – when sensitive groups should limit their time outside and avoid strenuous outdoor activity – those suggestions will become mandatory “whenever feasible,” the agency said. While employers are required to provide respiratory masks, employees can choose whether or not to use them.

If particulates from wildfire smoke are measured at 555 micrograms per cubic meter or higher, a level that exceeds Air Quality Index measurement, workers will be required to wear employer-provided respirators that are NIOSH approved. Growers typically don’t work in such conditions, which are rare, said L&I spokesperson Dina Lorraine.

The agency recommends that employers take steps to protect workers, especially those with asthma or lung conditions, even at lower Air Quality Index levels.

Employers are still required to train workers about the hazards of heat and wildfire smoke exposure, how employees can respond to potential exposure problems before working under those conditions, and what employees can do to mitigate the hazards.

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