a woman carries three large buckets filled with blueberries in a field while other workers pick berries in the background.

Farmworkers preparing the blueberries they picked in a farm in Albany to get them weighed and ready to ship to a pack house on June 28, 2021.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

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The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enacted new temporary rules to protect workers from extreme heat events in the future. This comes after more than 100 people died during the record-breaking heat wave at the end of June. At least two deaths have been linked to workplace conditions. Sebastian Francisco Lopez died while working at a farm in Marion County, and an unnamed worker died shortly after collapsing at a Walmart distribution center in Hermiston.

We hear from Oregon OSHA Administrator Michael Wood and Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller.

Two weeks ago, a 38 year old farm worker named Sebastian Francisco Perez died while working at a tree farm in St Paul. It reached 104 degrees that day. During the same heatwave, a still unnamed worker died shortly after collapsing at a Walmart distribution center in Hermiston. Last week, Oregon OSHA, which regulates workplace safety in the state, announced emergency rules intended to protect workers from the dangers of extreme heat.

Michael Wood is the administrator of Oregon OSHA. He joins us now, along with Reyna Lopez, she is the executive director of PCUN, Oregon’s farm worker’s union. It’s good to have both of you back on Think Out Loud.

Reyna Lopez: Thanks for having us.

Michael Wood: Good to be here.

Miller: Michael Wood first, can you walk us through some of what employers are going to have to do now, under these emergency rules, when the heat index hits 90°?

Wood: When the heat index hits 90°, that actually kicks in the second level of precaution, but I want to be clear that the precautions start even earlier than that, at 80°. Certainly, the tragic death that you referenced, Dave, that caught all of us up short. We at Oregon OSHA take those deaths very personally. I take deaths in the workplace in the state very personally. But it’s also true that risks can exist at lower levels. So at 80°, you need to make sure that you’re providing shade. You need to make sure that you’re providing ample drinking water. We expect employers to take those things seriously, but the rule puts a little bit more flesh on it.

At 90°, your high heat practices need to include more rigorous communication and check-in, so that there’s actually two way contact and some form of regular monitoring. You need to make sure that you have an emergency medical plan, so that you know what to do if you face situations where individuals are showing symptoms, so that you act quickly and you act early. You need to provide preventative rest breaks in the shade. For every two hours work above 90° with the heat index, that triggers a requirement to have at least 10 minutes not working and in the shade.

Miller: Reyna Lopez, what do you think of these new rules?

Lopez: Well, thanks so much for asking. We actually think that we were very heard by OSHA, especially on the emergency heat rules. We think it’s a really good start to protecting at-risk workers. We also think that strong enforcement is going to be really, really necessary for this. Our members are really excited to see that these protections are going to be in place, and that the tragic death of Sebastian Francisco was taken very seriously. We’re still concerned about adequate enforcement. In the case of Francisco specifically, the contractor in the nursery had repeated violations around other OSHA standards, and yet they continued to place workers at risk. Our advocates, our members, they’re going to continue to inform workers of their rights in the workplace, especially around these emergency rules as they are being implemented. We’re going to want to see that those rules are fully enforced by Oregon OSHA.

Miller: What does it tell you that the contractor and the nursery where Sebastian Francisco Perez worked had repeatedly violated OSHA standards? What does that mean to you?

Perez: What it means to me and what it means to the workers that are out there is: either people just weren’t informed and didn’t have the capacity to actually ensure that workers are being protected during extreme heat, or that they just ignored the health recommendations or didn’t have access to the, to the guidance that was online. Many times, the labor contractors themselves are immigrants that potentially just speak Spanish, and they don’t have the capacity to actually know where to go or get the information. For us, it’s really going to be crucial that people really understand what it means to implement these rules, so that now that they know better, they can do better, and we can save more lives in the future.

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Miller: Michael Wood, there are a lot of issues here that Reyna Lopez brought up, but the first one is about enforcement. How is enforcement going to work?

Wood: I think Reyna makes a very good point that enforcement is necessary, but also that it’s important to make sure that the employers who have to implement the rules know what it is that we expect of them. And so we are going to be launching an aggressive emphasis program related to heat. We’ll be formalizing that later this week, probably as early as tomorrow. It will focus not only on frequent inspections and on increasing our presence in the fields. I’ve authorized overtime, so that staff can work not only this week, but work through the coming weekend specifically for that purpose.

But we also want to make sure that we have education coupled with that. Education not only in English, but certainly in Spanish, so that we can make sure that employers, and to the degree possible their workers, understand what the rules are, understand what’s expected, and understand how to access, what, in a lot of respects, are fairly basic and common sense protections.

But we lose sight of them sometimes when the focus is on getting the job done. I mean, I was heartened to hear a grower, the orchardist you had on earlier, talking about the fact that, not only did they start very early with the harvest, but he said that then they knocked off. They ended up only working about half a normal day. Obviously that didn’t help him get his crop in, but it showed that he was paying attention to the risks to the workers, and I think that’s important.

Miller: Michael Wood, one of the things that I have read is that these emergency rules are more far reaching, more stringent than any other heat related workplace regulations in the country. What about these rules goes further than other states?

Wood: Well, unfortunately, it’s a short list to compare against. But when you look at other states like California and Washington, the first difference is that their rules are specifically only covering outdoor work. There’s a lot of work where ambient heat, what you think of as the weather, the temperature outside, where ambient heat is an issue, even though the work itself is happening indoors. There are a lot of folks who work inside, but work in a place where there’s absolutely no climate control or where there’s minimal climate control. They’re just as exposed, in some ways more exposed at times.

Miller: Warehouses, factories, delivery trucks. All of those kinds of workplaces would fall under these new emergency rules?

Wood: That’s true. The only thing that isn’t covered by these rules is heat generated by the process itself, like a foundry. We do have some basic rules on high heat processes, and we continue to look to those for those situations. But any place that has to deal with the weather, with the fact that it’s hot because it’s hot outside, would be covered by these rules.

Miller: I have to note, Michael Wood, that these rules were put in place officially, and as emergency rules, only after at least two Oregonians died at or seemingly because of their workplaces. But advocates like Reyna Lopez have been saying this could happen for years, that this exact kind of situation could happen. Why weren’t these emergency rules put in place before? Even, for example, just two weeks before, so they could have been in place before this heat wave that we saw was coming?

Wood: As I think you know Dave, we’ve had a project where we’ve been working on developing these heat rules on a so-called permanent basis, the Comprehensive Heat Rules, that’s been going on for several months. There have been some discussions around that, about possible temporary rule making. We don’t know the exact circumstances of either of the fatalities you mentioned. They are both tragic. They both certainly reflect a loss of life that didn’t need to occur. I don’t know whether quicker action on the rules would have made a difference in those cases. I don’t know whether we’ll be issuing citations as a result of our ongoing investigations in those cases.

What I do know is that looking forward, these rules will mean better protection for Oregon workers, not only in extraordinarily high heat events, like the heat dome that we experienced over that weekend, but even what we think of as just sort of “normal” high heat. The one you referenced in the distribution center, the worker was actually overcome on June 24th, which was before we hit those real high levels, with heat levels that a lot of folks in eastern Oregon would have described as normal. I think they both emphasised the importance and the value of acting now, and trying to give clearer and more specific and really more prescriptive guidance to employers.

Miller: Are you investigating any other heat related deaths right now to see if there is a connection to a workplace?

Wood: We did have a report of another potential heat related death, and we have concluded that the individual involved wasn’t a worker and it wasn’t work related. We are looking at several hospitalizations where it appears heat may be an issue. We also have a number of complaints from the period before the rule was adopted that we’re looking into, particularly over that exceptionally high heat weekend. And those are all in process.

When you look at the hospitalizations and the fatalities, you not only need to determine whether or not it’s work related, but it can take some time to actually determine what happened physiologically, and whether it was in fact a heat related death.

Miller: Reyna Lopez, to go back to you, we talked about the importance of enforcement. You brought that up, and Michael Woods said that’s connected to education, especially for employers, from the OSHA side. What are you going to be doing in terms of informing workers about their new rights?

Lopez: Yeah, that part of it is really crucial, and it’s really important that farm workers understand what their rights are and what the new rules are. We’re already getting to it. We have a radio station that transmits in Spanish and also in two of the top spoken indigenous languages in the farmworker community, specifically Mixteco and Purépecha. We’re starting off a program too in Mam. We’re seeing an increasing population coming from Guatemala, including Sebastian Francisco, he himself was an indigenous man from Guatemala that spoke Chuj. Having to have that in multiple languages and in more of an oral tradition is going to be crucial to really educating folks about what the rules are and what they can really do to prevent death in the future.

We also have a team of outreach workers that are visiting farms all the time, and churches, and laundromats wherever our people are at, to also share with them the information, folks that themselves were farm workers and speak indigenous languages and people that already have that trust with the community. We’re going to continue to ask for these basic protections and basic working conditions, because I think that it’s not really known in Oregon that the life of a farm worker is significantly a life of sacrifice. People come from many different parts in Latin America to do this work that’s very difficult. People lose their lives, they live in the shadows, because a significant portion of our community is also undocumented. We also need that to be a comprehensive approach to caring for our workers. I think that in the next couple of months our program is completely going to pivot, and we’re used to pivoting frankly, because every time there is an emergency, we get many calls from farm workers saying-

Miller: Reyna Lopez, we’re out of time, but thanks so much.


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