PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A farm worker in St. Paul died in the weekend’s heat wave, officials with Oregon OSHA said Tuesday.
OSHA said there is an open investigation with Brother Farm Labor Contractor and Ernst Nursery and Farms in St. Paul in Marion County. The worker was on a crew moving irrigation lines. At the end of his shift he was found unresponsive in a field.
The man who died was from Guatemala and had apparently arrived in the United States only a few months ago, said Andres Pablo Lucas, owner of Brother Farm Labor Contractor that provided workers for the nursery, including the man who died.
The man, whose name was not disclosed, died at Ernst Nursery and Farms, a wholesale supplier in St. Paul, 20 miles north of Salem, on Saturday amid sweltering temperatures. An Oregon OSHA database listed the death as heat-related.
“The employee was working on a crew moving irrigation lines. At the end of the shift he was found unresponsive in the field,” said agency spokesman Aaron Corvin.
Speaking in Spanish, Pablo Lucas said when workers gathered together shortly after noon on Saturday, they noticed one of them was missing. They began searching and found his body. Pablo Lucas said he didn’t remember the man’s name.
Pablo Lucas said the laborers often have the option to start working near sunrise when it is cooler and can stop around midday, but some want to stay regardless of the heat.
“The people want to work, to fight to succeed,” he said. “For that reason, they stay.”
The fight for heat season rules
“Every workplace death is preventable and I think we need to look at workplace fatalities as things that can be prevented and also who are the people who are suffering at work,” said Kate Suisman, an attorney with the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project. “It’s often people of color and immigrants and that is not how our system should work.”
Northwest Justice Project represents workers in low-wage industries, like cleaning and farming, and fights for strong policies that protect workers. About 5 years ago they started advocating for outdoor and indoor workers in hot environments to have protections against the heat.
“We saw the trends were getting worse,” she said. “We heard from many workers who were suffering from heat illnesses and we started asking OSHA close to 5 years ago for a specific rule to protect workers from heat.”
Since then the push continues to put rules in place.
Earlier this month, a coalition of 56 groups sent a leter to OHA and OSHA requesting specific rules for this heat season.
“We are hoping that OSHA does the right thing here and make sure that this heat season that workers aren’t left with no guidance and employers are left with no guidance,” she told KOIN 6 News.
In Bend, Oregon, authorities said the deaths of two homeless people in extreme heat may have been weather-related.
Washington and beyond
Officials in Bremerton, Washington, said heat may have contributed to four deaths in that Puget Sound city. But Vince Hlavaty, Bremerton’s medical officer, told the Kitsap Sun that firefighters cannot say definitively whether the heat was the cause of death.
The United Farm Workers urged Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to immediately issue emergency heat standards protecting all farm and other outdoor workers in the state with a strong agricultural sector. The state’s current heat standards fall short of safeguards the UFW first won in California in 2005 that have prevented deaths and illnesses from heat stroke, the union said in a statement.
Unlike workers in California, Washington state farm workers do not have the right to work shade and breaks amid extreme temperatures.
“I was off today so I was helping distribute water and information to the cherry harvesters,” said Martha Acevedo, a wine grape worker from Sunnyside, Washington, said in a union statement. “They were struggling. No shade, not even cold water.”
Seattle was cooler Tuesday with temperatures expected to reach about 90 F (32.2 C) after registering 108 degrees F (42 Celsius) on Monday — well above Sunday’s all-time high of 104 F (40 C). Portland, Oregon, reached 116 F (46.6 C) after hitting records of 108 F (42 C) on Saturday and 112 F (44 C) on Sunday.
President Joe Biden, during an infrastructure speech in Wisconsin, took note of the Northwest as he spoke about the need to be prepared for extreme weather.
“Anybody ever believe you’d turn on the news and see it’s 116 degrees in Portland Oregon? 116 degrees,” the president said, working in a dig at those who cast doubt on the reality of climate change. “But don’t worry — there is no global warming because it’s just a figment of our imaginations.”
The heat wave was caused by what meteorologists described as a dome of high pressure over the Northwest and worsened by human-caused climate change, which is making such extreme weather events more likely and more extreme.
KOIN 6 News reporter Jacquelyn Abad contributed to this report