Heat Driving New Rules in Northwest

Liz Carey

Salem, OR (WorkersCompensation.com) – Unprecedented heat in the Northwest is forcing some state agencies to put in place new rules for outdoor workers.

Last week, the Oregon OSHA issued new heat regulations following record high temperatures along the Pacific northwest coast. On June 28, temperatures in Portland reached 115 degrees, a record well above the average high of 80 for the area. Recent heat waves in Oregon and Washington killed more than 200 people, officials said.

Effective immediately, the agency said, employers would be required to expand access to shade and cool water, as well as provide regular cool-down breaks, training, communication, and heat-related emergency planning. The temporary rule will be in place for 180 days, while Oregon OSHA works on a permanent heat stress prevention rule that official anticipate will be adopted this fall.

Officials said the risks of working in high heat in the area aren’t going away – not this summer, or any summer to come.

“In the face of an unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest – and tragic consequences – it is absolutely critical that we continue to build up our defenses against the effects of climate change, including extreme heat events,” Andrew Stolfi, director of the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, which includes Oregon OSHA, said in a statement.

The temporary rule applies to outdoor and indoor workplaces where dangers due to the hot weather are present.

“This rule creates greater clarity for employers about the specific steps that need to be taken to protect workers from heat stress dangers at work,” said Michael Wood, administrator for Oregon OSHA. “For employees, it further crystalizes their existing rights to protection from heat hazards where they work.”

So far, Oregon’s medical examiner has reported more than 115 heat-related deaths since late June. In neighboring Washington, the state health department reported 78 deaths due to the heat.

The heat has been particularly difficult on job sites where work consists of manual labor done outside or in places without air-conditioning.

On July 9, Oregon officials announced they were investigating one possible heat-related death at an Oregon Walmart warehouse.

Officials said a middle-aged man who was a trainee at the distribution center in Hermiston, Oregon, “began stumbling and having difficulty speaking” after the end of his June 24 shift. Aaron Corvin, spokesman for the Oregon OSHA, said the man was first transferred to a hospital before being transferred to a Portland medical center where he died.

Corvin did not identify the man, or the cause of death, and said it could take several months for the agency to complete the investigation.

Workers at the distribution center said the man had been working for Walmart for about two weeks, earning $18 an hour, and was working inside a trailer where the only cooling mechanism was a fan. The National Weather Service reported the high in Hermiston that day was 97 degrees.

“We are devastated by the loss of one of our associates and are doing everything we can to support those affected,” Scott Pope, a spokesman for Walmart, said in a statement. “The details surrounding the associate’s passing are being assessed by medical professionals and OSHA. Out of an abundance of caution, we provided all information available to Oregon OSHA and are cooperating fully in their investigation.”

Farmworkers are especially vulnerable to heat-related deaths, advocates said.

On June 26, Sebastian Francisco Perez, an undocumented farmworker in Oregon, was working at a nursery that provided no access to water, shade or rest breaks, even as the temperatures climbed to 105 degrees. Prior to Oregon’s OSHA ruling, his employer wasn’t required to. Because of that, Perez, 38, worked in the 105 degree heat, until he collapsed and eventually died.

On Tuesday, new rules in Washington (passed after those instituted in Oregon) will go into effect to protect farm workers, and others, working in the heat. Current rules require that employers provide outdoor workers with at least a quart of drinking water per hour, safety training on outdoor heat exposure, and require that employers respond to employees who show symptoms of heat-related illnesses. The new rules state that when the temperature is at or above 100 degrees, employers must provide shade or another way for employees to cool down, as well as a paid cool-down rest period of at least 10 minutes every two hours, and that the water provided to employees must be cool.

“The heat experienced in our state this year has reached catastrophic levels,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said. “The physical risk to individuals is significant, in particular those whose occupations have them outdoors all day.”

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