Oregon adopts permanent worker protections for heat and smoke just in time for this summer’s extreme weather events

Victory! OEC and our coalition of environmental, health and science, small business, and labor partners have spent the last year and a half staunchly advocating for the most protective workplace regulations possible in Oregon.

We’re happy to announce that the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) responded with new, permanent rules that will hopefully set the tone for a new national standard. The heat and smoke rulemakings are a response to Governor Brown’s Executive Order 20-04, which mandated Oregon OSHA to develop these standards in order to protect workers on the job from excessive heat and smoke. 

It is no secret that Oregon will face increasingly frequent climate-fueled extreme conditions. Wildfires, heat domes, and the resulting bad air quality disproportionately impact lower-income people who have to work out in the elements, those who cannot afford to take a day off, and those already health vulnerable from illnesses like asthma.

Thanks to compelling testimony, comments, and engagement from our diverse stakeholder coalition, Oregon has adopted the strongest and most protective regulations in the nation, building upon the emergency rules that passed last summer. The advocacy of our coalition was especially important in making sure workers got paid breaks during high heat events, employer-provided masks, feasible controls to improve air quality when possible, and at least some relief from extreme heat in agricultural labor housing. Oregon’s new rules provide a strong model for federal standards, though a few critical loopholes that ultimately prioritize profit over people remain.  

So then, what’s in OSHA’s final regulations?

The good:

Specifically, the heat standard provides common-sense solutions such as: 

  • Access to shade, cool drinking water, and increased paid breaks at 80°F and 90°F. 
  • Additional high heat protections at 90°F, including a buddy system, increased communications between employers, supervisors, and employees, and a requirement for employers to measure heat and humidity levels in indoor structures.
  • Employers must provide annual training, an acclimatization plan, a heat illness prevention plan, and an emergency medical plan.

The wildfire smoke standard requires:

  • Employers to provide N95 respirators for voluntary use at 101 AQI (“unhealthy for sensitive groups”) and feasible controls to improve air quality in the workplace to reduce the level of smoke to below 101 AQI (e.g. changing work locations; using HVAC system to filter smoke). 
  • Mandatory respirator use at 251 AQI (“very unhealthy”). A complete respiratory protection program is required at 500 AQI (“hazardous”). 

The bad:

  • The tiered rest/work schedules in high heat are confusing, hard to implement, and give employers too much discretion to decide when workers can rest. The rules provide three charts/choices which could potentially lead to difficulty in enforcement or to workers knowing their rights.
  • The weakest of the tiered rest/work schedules does not consider whether a worker is exposed to direct sun. 
  • Employers must provide cool sleeping rooms in agricultural housing to 78°F or provide communal cooling areas for 50% of the inhabitants. That is not enough to accommodate all inhabitants. The heat protections in labor housing remain incomplete, but OR OSHA plans to fully address these protections in another separate rulemaking.

What’s next?

The success of these rules will depend on a strong enforcement program that prioritizes human health over profits, and OR OSHA staying strong in the face of industry pressures. We know that it is likely these rules will be challenged by big businesses. We also know that healthy and happy workers are ultimately better for our economy and protecting human rights is of the utmost importance. OEC and its partners will watchdog the implementation of these rules and continue collaboration with multiple stakeholders to ensure a successful program.

Working together:

These final rules were truly a team effort between our partners PCUN, Northwest Justice Workers Project, Climate Jobs, Main Street Alliance, Oregon Law Center, AFL-CIO, and others and we are deeply appreciative of the collaboration and efforts from Oregon OSHA. Dozens of people provided testimony and hundreds of public comments were delivered asking OSHA to protect people from climate change. See our joint press release here

Our partners at NRDC have just released a map tracking occupational safety standards in each state. See how Oregon compares to the rest of the nation!

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