Oregon establishes rules to protect outdoor workers from heat, wildfire smoke

Oregon’s workplace safety agency Oregon OSHA has adopted new rules to protect agricultural and other outdoor workers from excessive heat and wildfire smoke.

The agency's heat rule requires employers provide workers access to shade, cool water, breaks and training. It kicks in when the heat index passes 80 degrees and adds additional oversights when the heat index reaches 90 degrees. The wildfire smoke rule commands employees to address workers' exposure to smoke and unhealthy air by monitoring air quality and providing training to employees.

The heat rules take effect June 15; the wildfire rules July 1. Both rules are the most protective of their kind in the country, OSHA officials said in a release Monday, and reflect the need to strengthen protections in the workplace while "focusing on the needs of Oregon's most vulnerable communities."

Both rules encompass initial protective measures for workers who rely on employer-provided housing, including as part of farm operations.

The rules were proposed in February following a development process that included worker and community stakeholder listening sessions, input rule advisory committees, and employer and labor stakeholders, OSHA officials said.

They build on temporary emergency requirements that were adopted last year following a historic heat wave and the death of one agricultural worker.

“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," Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement.

Farmworkers prepare for extreme heat on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 in Brooks, Ore. Temperatures are expected to surpass 100 degrees in the Willamette Valley.
Farmworkers prepare for extreme heat on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 in Brooks, Ore. Temperatures are expected to surpass 100 degrees in the Willamette Valley.

Heat rules

Last summer, Oregon experienced historically-high temperatures.

More than 100 people statewide, including more than a dozen in Marion County, died during a late June heatwave when temperatures in Salem reached a record 117 degrees.

Sebastian Francisco Perez, a nursery worker who had recently arrived from Guatemala, died on a 104-degree day at Ernst Nursery and Farms.

Advocates had for months prior called for the state to establish emergency heat rules to protect farmworkers and other outdoor workers. OSHA released temporary heat rules in July, after the June heatwave.

Emergency rules:OSHA adopts emergency rules after farmworker's death

A list provided to the Statesman Journal of the heat-related complaints OSHA received from mid-June to the end of July shows 19 of the 219 complaints were from agricultural or processing sites. One alleged a Yamhill County nursery denied workers the ability to leave work early on a hot day. Another alleged a Mid-Valley nursery was not providing workers water in triple-digit temperatures.

OSHA's permanent heat rules say when the heat index passes 80 degrees, employees must establish and maintain one or more shaded areas that are available to outdoor workers nd supply workers with at least 32 oz. of cool or cold drinking water per hour.

When the heat index reaches 90 degrees, employers must:

  • Monitor workers for signs of heat illness, including regular communication with employees working alone or creating a mandatory buddy system.

  • Designate and equip one or more employee at each worksite to call for medics.

  • Develop a written heat rest break schedule that provides a minimum 10-minute break every two hours when temperatures reach 90 degrees and a 15-minute break every hour when temperatures reach 100.

  • Develop training on heat illness prevention, including how workers can recognize symptoms of dehydration and how to respond to others who may be experiencing heat-related illnesses.

Wildfire smoke rules

Thousands of agricultural workers in the Mid-Valley worked in smoky conditions during 2020's Labor Day fires. Farmworker advocates reported hearing from countless people describing headaches, nausea, loss of appetite and other smoke-related symptoms, as well as pressure to continue working in dangerous conditions.

OSHA issued guidance, but no rules, during the Labor Day fires.

Air quality in Salem during wildfires in 2020 topped 400 on the air quality index (AQI) scale, and in Bend topped 500. Levels over 100 are considered unhealthy. Members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects when the AQI is over 151. Levels over 300 are considered hazardous, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's air quality index.

A report from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality highlighted that there's been an increase in the number of days that wildfire smoke creates unhealthy air conditions for sensitive groups. Climate change also is expected to make wildfires more frequent and intense.

Awaiting rules:State still working on rules to protect farmworkers from wildfire smoke

OSHA established temporary smoke rules last year that required employers to train employees on wildfire smoke hazards. Similarly, the permanent rules require employers whose workers are exposed to wildfire smoke to take precautions when the ambient air concentration for fine particulate matter is at a PM2.5 or an AQI of 101.

A PM2.5 are solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in air, known as fine particulate matter, with an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller and measured in micrograms per cubic meter.

Employers must:

  • Monitor wildfire smoke when employees are exposed to an air concentration of 2.5 particulate matter above a 101 AQI.

  • Provide information and training to employees on addressing wildfire smoke, including symptoms of exposure and the chronic effects of exposure.

  • Train workers on the importance of using a filtering facepiece respirator and requiring employers to make them readily accessible to workers for no charge.

  • Communicate wildfire smoke information to employees, such as changes in air quality and health symptoms that may result from exposure to smoke.

Resources from OSHA

Former Statesman Journal and Report for America reporter Dora Totoian contributed to this story.

Virginia Barreda is the breaking news and public safety reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at 503-399-6657 or at vbarreda@statesmanjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Oregon OSHA establishes rules to protect workers from heat, smoke