Oregon adopts heat and smoke rules for workers

Oregon has some of the nation’s most protective smoke and heat rules for workers.

After more than a year and a half of developing rules, the Oregon Division of Occupational Safety and Health has adopted permanent rules to protect workers working in excessive heat or smoke from a Forest fire. The rules are similar to the temporary measures adopted at the 2021 Heat Dome event. At least four people died at work during the record-breaking heat wave, including a farm worker who died of heat stress on a farm north of Salem.

New heat rules apply to outdoor and indoor work activities when temperatures exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The rules require employers to provide employees with access to shade, fresh drinking water, extra breaks when temperatures exceed 90 degrees and an acclimatization period to gradually help employees adapt . The rules also require training on the prevention of heat-related illnesses.

the wildfire smoke rules apply when the Air quality index reached 101, which is moderate danger levels. Employers must provide N95 face masks or other federally approved face masks for voluntary use. These masks are mandatory when the AQI reaches 251. The rules also require communicating with employees about smoke levels from wildfires, moving workers indoors, changing work schedules and providing l filtered air when the air quality is poor.

Aaron Corvin, an Oregon OSHA public information officer, said the agency considers the rules to be the most protective in the nation. Corvin said there was more than a year and a half of stakeholder feedback.

The rules come into effect this summer to give employers time to adjust, get equipment and provide training.

“We set the standard, we have resources to enforce it and educational resources to share,” Corvin said. “It will also take work from the people who are on their sites every day to make sure we achieve this.”

Environmental and labor rights groups welcome the new protections, but enforcement will be key.

“These are really common-sense protections that don’t even currently exist at the federal level,” said Jamie Pang, environmental health program director for the Oregon Environmental Council, an environmental nonprofit. “What remains to be seen is how it will be implemented and how successful it will be.”

Pang said the application of rules such as the schedule of breaks for the prevention of heat illnesses could be difficult for Oregon OSHA to oversee. Under the rule, employers can develop one of three break plans that limit employee exposure when temperatures reach 90 degrees or more.

“Proponents lobbied for Oregon OSHA to make it more clear and streamlined and to make it less ambiguous,” Pang said. “But ultimately Oregon OSHA decided to provide three tables, which are basically three choices for work and rest schedules.”

Pang said the agency should also have dedicated inspectors to investigate specific job sites such as construction or warehouses, especially on hot and smoky days.

“Climate change is an existential threat to all life on Earth and frankly, workplaces are no different, especially for people who have to train in the elements or in uncontrolled temperature environments,” a- she declared.

Ira Cuello-Martinez, climate policy associate at farmworker advocacy group Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste in Woodburn, said the rules are a step in the right direction, but added that many farmworkers are struggling to trust Oregon OSHA and are reluctant to file complaints.

“It’s based on experiences they’ve had either with a lack of communication or follow-up or employers not being fined enough for some of the violations,” he said. . “We have also heard of experiences of retaliation where if a worker speaks up they may be vulnerable to losing their job and in some cases even being blacklisted by contractors.”

Cuello-Martinez expressed concern about how the training will be implemented and whether employees will have enough time to learn the requirements on different job sites, as many farm workers work on different farms throughout the year. and some even work at different sites on the same day.

“I’m sure every employer is going to approach it differently, and we just want to provide those spaces and opportunities to talk to our community about what they’ve heard, what we see in the rules and what needs to be applied. within their workplace,” he said.

Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of government and legal affairs for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the new rules could potentially expose producers to penalties and litigation.

“Oregon Farm Bureau provided comments consistently urging Oregon OSHA to create rules that are enforceable by family farms while protecting workers,” she said in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, Oregon-OSHA has passed rules that impose immense liability on small, family-owned businesses at a time when they are already struggling to stay afloat.”

The heat rules go into effect June 15 and the wildfire smoke rules go into effect July 1. Currently, Washington and California have temporary rules to protect workers and are also working on permanent rules that have yet to be implemented.

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