Oregon has adopted some of the nation’s most protective smoke and heat rules for workers.
After more than a year and a half of rule-making, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division adopted permanent rules to protect workers laboring in excessive heat or wildfire smoke. The rules are similar to the temporary measures adopted during the 2021 heat dome event. At least four people died on the job during the record-setting heat wave, including a farmworker who died of heat stress on a farm north of Salem.
The 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, cool drinking water, additional rest breaks when temperatures exceed 90 degrees, and an acclimatization period to gradually help employees adapt. The rules also require heat illness prevention training.
The wildfire smoke rules apply when the Air Quality Index reaches 101, or moderate levels of danger. Employers are to provide N95 face masks or other federally approved face masks for voluntary use. Those masks are mandatory when the AQI reaches 251. The rules also require communicating with employees on wildfire smoke levels, relocating workers indoors, changing work schedules and providing filtered air when air quality is bad.
Aaron Corvin, an Oregon OSHA public information officer, said the agency considers these rules to be the most protective in the nation. Corvin said there was more than a year and a half of input from stakeholders.
The rules take effect this summer to give employers time to adjust, get equipment and conduct training.
“We’ve set the standard, we have resources to enforce it and education resources to share,” Corvin said. “It’s also going to take work on the part of folks who are at their worksites every day to make sure that we carry this out.”
Environmental and workers’ rights groups say they welcome the new protections, but enforcement will be critical.
“These are really common-sense protections that currently don’t even exist on the federal level,” said Jamie Pang, environmental health program director for 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 enforcement of rules such as the heat illness prevention rest break schedule could be tricky for Oregon OSHA to oversee. Under the rule, employers can develop one of three schedule break plans that limit employee exposure when temperatures reach 90 degrees or higher.
“Advocates have been pushing for Oregon OSHA to make it more clear and streamline and make it less ambiguous,” Pang said. “But ultimately Oregon OSHA decided to provide three charts, which is essentially three choices for work rest schedules.”
Pang said the agency also should 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 that do have to work out in the elements or work out in non-temperature-controlled environments,” she said.
Ira Cuello-Martinez, climate policy associate with farmworkers advocacy group Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste in Woodburn, said the rules are a step in the right direction, but added many farmworkers have struggled to trust Oregon OSHA and are reluctant to file complaints.
“That’s based off of experiences that they’ve had either from lack of communication or follow up or employers not being sufficiently fined for some of the violations,” he said. “We’ve also heard about experiences of retaliation where, if a worker speaks up, that they may be vulnerable to losing their job, and in some cases even being blacklisted from contractors.”
Cuello-Martinez said he’s concerned how training will be implemented and if employees will have enough time to learn requirements at different job sites, since many farmworkers work at different farms throughout the year and some even work at different sites on the same day.
“I’m sure every single 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 at the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the new rules could potentially open up growers to penalties and litigation.
“Oregon Farm Bureau provided comments consistently urging Oregon OSHA to create rules that are implementable by family farms while remaining protective of workers,” she said in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, Oregon-OSHA adopted rules that impose immense liability on small and family businesses, at a time when they are already struggling to stay afloat.”
The heat rules take effect on June 15 and the wildfire smoke rules take effect on July 1. Currently, Washington and California have temporary rules for protecting workers and are also working on permanent rules that have not yet been implemented.