Centering Frontline Voices: Oregon OSHA Enacts Heat & Smoke Rules

In a summer already marked by unprecedented temperatures and a devastating wildfire season, OEC and its partners pressed Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to adopt a health-first standard when it comes to protecting vulnerable workers from climate hazards. As part of EO-20-04 (OCAP), Governor Kate Brown directed Oregon OSHA to develop standards in order to protect frontline workers from excessive heat caused by climate change and wildfire smoke exposure.

farmworker carrying box of produce in a field with other workers

Photo by Tim Mossholder | Unsplash

We know that not everyone is equally impacted by climate change. Frontline essential workers such as farmworkers, bus drivers, and warehouse workers are paid less than white-collar workers, yet they may be expected to  work in very hot or smokey environments. In the last heat dome in June, over 100 people died in Oregon, including farmworker Sebastian Perez, who was laying out irrigation systems by himself in 116 degree weather.  

Due to the advocacy work of OEC and our frontline partners, Oregon OSHA has enacted emergency rules to protect workers from excessive heat exhaustion, unlivable conditions in farmworker housing, and wildfire smoke exposure on the job while they develop permanent rules for worker safety.

Excessive Heat: 

Oregon currently has the most protective standards in the nation for excessive heat. Under the new temporary rules, employers must provide workers:

  • access to shade or alternative cooling, 
  • adequate supplies of cool drinking water, and 
  • training for both supervisors and employees on heat and smoke impacts and procedures.

These safeguards are activated once the heat index reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and apply to both indoor and outdoor workplaces. Employers must ensure that all employees and supervisors are trained in a number of heat stress related topics, including how to identify symptoms of heat-related illness. 

Importantly, high heat procedures are triggered when the heat index reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit—an improvement from the California heat standard. The high heat procedures include requiring employers to: 

  • observe workers for signs of heat illness or create a mandatory buddy system, 
  • provide additional paid breaks every two hours, and 
  • develop and implement an emergency medical plan.

Heat in Agricultural Labor Housing:

In a separate temporary rule, OSHA has also required heat protections for agricultural labor housing. It is critical that farmworkers have some relief after working in extreme heat before toiling in the fields the following day. Employers must now keep sleeping rooms at labor housing at or below 78 degrees Fahrenheit when the heat index outside is at or above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or to provide communal cooling areas for at least 50% of the occupants at each of the labor housing sites.

Wildfire Smoke Exposure: 

Under the new temporary rules, when the  Air Quality Index (AQI) reaches a level of  101 (“unhealthy for sensitive groups”), employers must provide N95 respirators for voluntary use and require training on the hazards of smoke if work operations are to continue.

At the AQI of 201 (“very unhealthy”), employers must use feasible administrative or engineering controls to reduce smoke exposure and provide and require the use of N95 respirators. A complete respiratory protection program is required at 500 AQI (“hazardous”).  Employees are protected from retaliation via existing statutes.

Our Work is Not Finished: 

While we were happy to see these rules put into place, it is important to note that all of these emergency rules are only temporary, and will need strong enforcement. OEC and its partners will continue to push for the strongest possible permanent protections for workers through the ongoing rulemaking processes while centering the needs and voices of those most vulnerable to these hazards.

See our Joint Press Release from July 8 2021

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