PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It might soon be a requirement for employers to provide their outdoor workers with cool drinking water, access to shade, and training on heat-related illness, but those rules won’t be in place in time to help workers during Oregon’s current heat wave.
The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration is currently working with various organizations to draft new rules that would help keep the state’s outdoor workers safe during times of extreme heat.
The rules are drafted, but Oregon OSHA said the plan is to formally propose the draft in September.
“The bottom line for it is that it’s prescriptive. It essentially would lay out and communicate very clear expectations, basically a set of expectations if you will, that are prescriptive for employers in dealing with a situation of excessive heat,” explained Aaron Corvin, a spokesperson for Oregon OSHA.
In addition to requiring cool drinking water, access to shade, and heat-related illness training, the rules would require employers to establish heat illness prevention plans, and plans that ensure each employee is acclimatized to their work environment.
Oregon OSHA started working on the rules after Gov. Kate Brown issued Executive Order 20-04 in March 2020. The order provides directives meant to mitigate climate change and also requires the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon OSHA to develop standards to protect employees from excessive heat and wildfire smoke.
Corvin said the development efforts were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but are back on track.
Oregon OSHA has been working closely with Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or PCUN, Oregon’s farmworkers union, to draft the rules.
“The biggest concern we have is folks really getting sick,” said Ira Cuello-Martinez, policy and climate manager at PCUN. “We don’t want anyone to, you know, end up at the hospital or something because of the stress put on their bodies doing this intense work under extreme weather conditions.”
Cuello Martinez said PCUN has been pushing for three main things: water, shade and breaks.
While the new rules aren’t in place yet, Corvin said Oregon OSHA still has an “emphasis program” and other heat-related rules in place that should help ensure safe practices in the workplace during the current extreme temperatures.
The program offers advice on training employees about the hazards of heat and ways to ensure employees have access to water and shade.
If Oregon OSHA receives a report of an employee fatality or hospitalization, it must evaluate whether heat exposure may have been a factor. Oregon OSHA can issue citations when employers fail to provide adequate amounts of or access to cool drinking water.
“We do have expectations for employers to be doing things now to address heat stress, not waiting for a rule. I mean certainly that’s in development, but there are things they need to be doing now to protect their workers,” Corvin said.
Kathy Koball Miller co-owns Tukwilla Vineyard and Miller Farm Cherries with her husband. While the cherry farm is mainly a u-pick operation, Koball Miller said she and her husband do employ a couple of seasonal farmworkers on their vineyard.
With temperatures well over 100 degrees, Koball Miller said they’ve already taken steps to protect their workers. She told them to not come to work Saturday or Sunday, and on Monday, she told them to only work from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Koball Miller said on days when the temperature is above 95 degrees, she requires her employees to take 20 minute breaks every hour to sit in the shade.
“It’s inhumane. If you can’t stand to go out there and work in it, I don’t want anybody else to do it either,” she said.
Her employees accrue vacation time and Koball Miller said they were able to use that for the remainder of the day Monday, so they wouldn’t miss out on wages.
Cuello-Martinez said wages can be one factor that drives some workers to push themselves through extreme temperatures. He said many don’t have the luxury to take a day off to avoid the heat.
Unfortunately, he said many also don’t have health insurance to cover any medical expenses that could result if they do get heat-related illness from working.
Cuello-Martinez said working conditions can vary from farm to farm. Many workers won’t stay at the same farm all year. Instead, they’ll move around depending on what’s in season.
He said the new Oregon OSHA rules could help ensure that the same standards for treatment during extreme heat are met at all farms.
“Some employers are doing really well when it comes to preventing their workers from being exposed to these extreme weather conditions,” he said, “and then there are others where we need to have more direct pressure and more oversight around what’s going on on their farms.”
Corvin said any employees concerned about conditions at their workplace during the heat have the right to raise those concerns with their employers. They can also file a complaint on Oregon OSHA’s website.
Koball Miller said she hopes she’s doing everything she can to keep her workers healthy and safe.
“If you value your employees, especially when workers are scarce and it’s hard to hire them and retain them, you want to do what’s the best that you can for them,” Koball Miller said.