Oregon OSHA Enacts Emergency Heat Rules

A Joint Press Release – July 8, 2021

Contacts:
Ira Cuello-Martinez, PCUN iracuello@pcun.org, (503) 851-5774
Kate Suisman, Northwest Justice Workers Project kate@nwjp.org, 503-765-7105
Jamie Pang, Oregon Environmental Council, jamiep@oeconline.org, (971) 353-7963

Oregon OSHA’s Emergency Heat Rules Are a Good Start to Protecting At-Risk Workers; Strong Enforcement Will be Necessary

SALEM, Ore— Oregon OSHA today issued emergency rules protecting workers from climate-fueled excessive heat, following an extensive campaign by workers’ rights, environmental, and public health advocates. The emergency heat rules enacted today are the most protective in the nation. 

Governor Kate Brown directed the agency to adopt emergency rules following the tragic and preventable death of 38 year-old farmworker, Sebastian Francisco Perez. Perez died while working on a tree farm in St. Paul, Oregon during the height of last week’s heatwave. 

Oregon OSHA is in the process of drafting permanent rules to protect workers from exposure to both excessive heat and wildfire smoke, expected to be finalized this fall. Given the unprecedented extreme temperatures and grim forecasts of another devastating wildfire season, advocacy groups have pressed Oregon OSHA to adopt emergency rules to protect workers from climate hazards this summer. The tragic death of Perez makes it clearer than ever: protections for workers simply cannot wait. 

“We can and must protect people with common sense actions.,” says Jamie Pang, environmental health program director at Oregon Environmental Council. “The extreme heat Oregon experienced is just the beginning. It is critical we come together to prioritize and protect the lives of working people on the frontlines of climate hazards.” 

“Farmworkers are asking for basic protections, and working conditions. Oregon OSHA is taking an important step forward in leading the nation on standards for outdoors workers. It’s crucial that we continue to take steps towards long term policy shifts in our state, that take climate change, and workers safety seriously. That means creating standards that keep people safe, while engaging stakeholders is climate policy that will allow our communities to be healthy, and thrive in the long term.” Said Reyna Lopez, Executive Director of PCUN

Attorney Kate Suisman of the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project added, “Every workplace death is preventable.  With these new rules, Oregon has a chance to lead the country  in ensuring workplaces are safe from high heat, especially for those doing the most demanding and dangerous jobs like farming and construction.”

Under the new temporary rules, employers must:

  • provide workers access to shade or alternative cooling measures, 
  • adequate supply of cool drinking water, and 
  • training for both supervisors and employees.

Safeguards are activated once the heat index reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and apply to both indoor and outdoor workplaces. Beginning August 1st, 2021, 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 that PCUN, Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, and Oregon Environmental Council pushed for to be more protective of frontline workers. 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.

While advocates applaud the adoption of emergency heat rules, there are still concerns about whether they will be adequately enforced. In the case of Perez, the contractor and nursery had repeatedly violated other OSHA standards, yet continued to place workers at risk. Advocates will continue informing workers on their workplace rights as the emergency rules are implemented because the rules will have no significant impact on workers if they are not fully enforced by Oregon OSHA. 

Oregon OSHA is also considering adopting emergency rules to protect workers from wildfire smoke this August. In the case of both wildfire smoke and excessive heat, these rules are only temporary; advocates will continue to push for the strongest possible permanent protections for workers through the ongoing rulemaking processes.  

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