As Oregon continues to experience high temperatures and wildfire smoke, the state has enacted two new temporary rules to protect workers laboring in excessive heat and wildfire smoke.
The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration has enacted temporary wildfire smoke rules that will require employers to provide N95 masks to employees when the Air Quality Index reaches more than 101. The AQI scale peaks at 500 with anything over 100 having the potential to affect people’s health. The AQI categorizes air quality in six categories: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous.
Last year during the Labor Day fires, Oregon’s air was so hazardous it recorded off the chart numbers in many parts of the state.
The rule also requires hazard training and education on the health effects of wildfire smoke, reducing smoke exposure by adding a filtration process when the AQI reaches 201 and clearly announcing when the air quality has reached unhealthy levels.
“We believe these rules provide better safeguards for workers and create greater clarity for employers as they move forward,” Michael Wood, Oregon OSHA administrator Michael Wood said in a press release statement.
These rules are a response to calls from advocates to Gov. Kate Brown to protect workers after a farmworker died from heat-related illness on a farm north of Salem on June 26. Last month, Oregon OSHA adopted the first set of temporary rules to protect workers laboring in excessive heat. Those rules include providing and ensuring workers have access to shade and cool drinking water when temperatures reach 80 degrees and providing extra cool down breaks when temperatures exceed 90 degrees.
The second excessive heat rule adopted by the agency applies to workers living in employer-provided housing. Employees must have access to rooms or cooling areas that stay at or below 78 degrees. Additional training will be required for workers on the hazards and signs of heat-related illnesses, and workers must always have access to emergency services.
“Oregon farmworkers faced multiple extreme weather events over the last year and are asking for basic protections and working conditions,” Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste Executive Director Reyna Lopez said in a press release statement. “We are glad to see Oregon OSHA take a step in the right direction as we navigate through the climate crisis and protect workers’ health.”
Nora Apter is the climate program director with the Oregon Environmental Council. She’s glad to see more rules have been adopted to continue to protect workers but would have liked to see more.
“We were hoping to see a buddy system required which is a helpful way to make sure workers have someone with them, someone that can identify if they’re exhibiting signs of health impacts related to exposure to wildfire smoke,” Apter said.
She said the organization would have also liked to see additional paid breaks required when the air quality becomes hazardous. But Apter worries about how Oregon OSHA will enforce the rules, especially as employers will be required to provide N95 masks.
“We know those can be hard to come by especially when wildfire smoke begins to affect broader areas and populations,” she said. “They can be of course in very high demand and therefore in short supply.”
Both rules take effect on August 9 and remain in place for 180 days.