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Oregon adopts permanent rules to protect workers from heat, wildfire smoke

UPDATED: Wed., May 11, 2022

A man works in a field at Ernst Nursery in St. Paul, OR on Fri., July 2, 2021. Sebastian Perez was working at the nursery when he collapsed and died on June 26 during record-breaking temperatures.  (Dave Killen)
A man works in a field at Ernst Nursery in St. Paul, OR on Fri., July 2, 2021. Sebastian Perez was working at the nursery when he collapsed and died on June 26 during record-breaking temperatures. (Dave Killen)
By Jamie Goldberg The Oregonian

Oregon adopted permanent job site rules Tuesday mandating that employers take steps to protect workers from extreme heat and wildfire smoke.

The heat rules take effect June 15 while the wildfire rules go into effect July 1.

The regulations, adopted by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, lay out specific steps employers must take once the temperature or air quality reaches a certain threshold.

The heat rules require employers to provide sufficient shaded areas, ample water and increasingly frequent rest breaks as temperatures rise. It also requires employers to develop heat prevention plans, train employees and supervisors about heat illnesses and ensure employees are given time to acclimate to heat and are regularly monitored while working in high temperatures.

The rules also set standards that employers must meet to protect workers from heat in agricultural labor housing, including giving workers access to cooling areas and fans.

The wildfire smoke rules require employers to provide training to employees about the dangers of wildfire smoke, make respirators available as the air quality reaches unhealthy levels or require workers to wear respirators if air quality levels spike above a “very unhealthy” 251 and recommend that employers consider relocating if the air quality is unhealthy.

Worker advocates praised the new rules, but said they remained concerned that the regulations for rest breaks and requirements for labor housing weren’t stringent enough.

“Concerns remain regarding some areas of these rules, but it is a good start to improving conditions for farmworkers,” said Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN, Oregon’s farmworkers union. “Our union will be in close communication with workers and OSHA to ensure the rules are being enforced.”

Oregon touted the new rules as the most protective in the nation.

“As we enter what we expect will be another hot and dry summer, all workers, including Oregon’s hard-working agricultural and farmworkers, deserve health and safety protections from extreme heat and wildfire smoke,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement. “With these new rules from Oregon OSHA, I am proud that Oregon will be a national model for heat and wildfire smoke protections for all workers, regardless of income-level, occupation, or immigration status.”

The federal government does not have similar rules, although it is developing heat regulations.

Several states have adopted their own heat standards, and California has rules to protect workers in extreme heat and wildfire smoke.

Oregon adopted temporary emergency rules to protect workers from extreme heat and wildfire smoke last year after workers across the state were exposed to harsh working conditions during unprecedented heat in June 2021 and wildfires in September 2020. Those rules, which were somewhat more stringent than the permanent regulations adopted Tuesday, expired earlier this year.

At least two workers, farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez and construction worker Dan Harris, died from heat-related illnesses after working through blistering heat last June. They were among nearly 100 people across Oregon who died during last year’s heat wave as temperatures reached 116 in Portland and even higher elsewhere, shattering all-time high temperature records across the state.

Gov. Kate Brown directed Oregon OSHA and the Oregon Health Authority to develop standards to protect employees from excessive heat and wildfire smoke back 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.

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