As fire season begins, new rules protecting Oregon workers from heat and smoke are in question

With temperatures rising and fire season officially declared, advocates are visiting Oregon farms and job sites, educating workers on the state’s new rules to protect them from extreme heat and smoke from the fires of forest.

Oregon’s 86,000 farm workers face the highest risks from heat and smoke in the summer, but many are unaware that the new rules guarantee shade or water, for example.

“They are generally comforted and relieved to know,” said Kate Suisman, an attorney at the Northwest Workers Justice Project. “The summer before last, when we had a bad smoke, everyone was caught off guard.” The Portland-based project advocates for low-wage workers.

During the 2020 Labor Day weekend wildfires, many farm workers harvested crops while breathing in unhealthy levels of smoke. In 2021, extreme heat resulted in the death of an Oregon farm worker. This year, state officials hope to avoid harm with two new sets of rules that became permanent on June 15. They primarily affect the agriculture, forestry and construction industries, which employ more than 300,000 people in Oregon, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. .

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Enforced by Oregon’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Oregon OSHA, heat and smoke rules require employers to provide respirators in smoky conditions and wet and shade in case of heat. The same day the heat rules went into effect, three industry groups — Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, Associated Oregon Loggers, Inc., and the Oregon Forest Industries Council — challenged OSHA’s authority. to apply them in a trial filed in the U.S. District Court in Medford. The lawsuit also challenges the smoking rules that went into effect on July 1. The lawsuit names Oregon OSHA and the state Department of Consumer and Business Services as defendants along with their administrators — Renee Stapleton, acting OSHA administrator, and Andrew Stolfi, who leads the consumer and business agency.

The lawsuit asks for immediate and temporary restraining orders on the rules in hopes of permanently blocking them.

Common sense also dictates that many employees, such as foresters, intentionally sign up for heavy manual labor outdoors and are paid to work in conditions that are likely to be hot in an ordinary summer.

– Sara Duncan, Director of Communications, Oregon Council of Forest Industries

Opponents say the rules are too restrictive and not specific enough to each industry, saying some rules protecting farmers don’t make sense to apply to loggers. They say the rules could unnecessarily limit production. Labor rights and environmental justice groups say they are needed to keep people safe.

The court has yet to respond to the request, and Oregon OSHA spokesman Aaron Corvin said the agency is not commenting on pending litigation.

Sara Duncan, communications director for the Oregon Council of Forest Industries, said in an email that industry groups hoped to have an early decision on whether the rules would be allowed to remain in effect before the end of this summer. .

This worries lawyers. On Monday, the Oregon Forest Department announced the start of the statewide fire season, which typically lasts through late October.

“We’re hoping it doesn’t evolve at all while we’re in the thick of it,” Suisman said of the lawsuit. “It would be devastating for workers.”

There are no federal standards for protecting workers from heat or smoke. Only three states, California, Washington and Minnesota, have heat and smoke standards.

The lawsuit argues that Oregon’s rules go further than those of other states, Duncan said. “The rules were initiated in response to extreme weather events in recent years, but in fact extend far beyond those extreme events and will unnecessarily restrict work in ordinary outdoor circumstances,” she said.

Rules define thresholds

The first set of heat rules come into effect when the combined outdoor temperature and relative humidity — called the heat index — reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Employers must provide shaded areas for workers and enough drinking water for each employee to consume 32 ounces, or one quart, per hour. The water cannot be hotter than 77 degrees. Companies should provide training to educate workers about the risk factors for heat-related illnesses.

At 90 degrees, employers must monitor or allow a buddy system to check if employees are showing symptoms of heat illness. Employers must also impose regular breaks on workers.

OSHA also verifies that companies have an emergency medical plan for heat illness.

There are too many examples of workers getting sick and workers dying from the heat and employers are portraying themselves as victims.

– Kate Suisman, attorney, Northwest Workers Justice Project

The smoke rules come into effect when the particulates – particles that reach 1/30 the diameter of a human hair – reach the safe breathing limit set by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. At this level there is usually a visible haze in the air and breathing becomes more difficult. Employers must monitor air quality, inform employees of the risks of exposure to wildfire smoke, and provide voluntary use respirators. Employers should have plans to move outdoor workers into enclosed buildings if necessary and adjust work schedules to reduce employee exposure to smoke if the air quality threshold is reached.

The smoke rules do not apply to job sites inside buildings or structures with ventilation systems, and the heat rules do not apply to work areas where temperatures never rise by approximately 80 degrees. The rules also do not apply to people working in emergency situations or where exposure is limited.

Industry wants nuanced rules

Industry officials support some of the rules, said Duncan of the Oregon Forest Industries Council, which represents more than 50 forest owners and forest product manufacturers in the state.

She said employers support educating employees about potential health risks, enabling them to take precautionary measures, monitor workers for symptoms and provide water and shade.

But employers object to being required to provide respirators to employees when their use is optional. She argued that air quality requirements are the strictest nationwide and said the rules lack specificity: they don’t prescribe what to do when temperatures momentarily rise.

Industry officials would like rules that differentiate between agricultural and forestry sites, for example.

The rules “will significantly restrict work in mild circumstances like a typical Oregon summer day,” Duncan said. “Common sense also says that many employees, such as foresters, intentionally sign up for heavy manual labor outdoors and are paid to work in conditions that are likely to be hot in an ordinary summer.”

Still, she hasn’t heard of any employers who have struggled to stick to the rules, though she said it was linked to a cooler start to summer.

Worker advocates say lawsuit misguided

“Many of these rule-challenging industries have also played a disproportionate role in climate change,” said Jamie Pang South, director of the environmental health program at the Oregon Environmental Council. “Environmentalists and labor and labor advocates overlap much more than people realize, and they have similar antagonists.”

Suisman of the Northwest Workers Justice Project agreed, “There are too many examples of workers getting sick and workers dying because of the heat,” Suisman said. “And employers present themselves as victims.”

Oregon Heat and Smoke Rules for Workers

Employees and employers should be educated about the risk factors for heat-related illnesses and the dangers of exposure to smoke.

Heat Prevention Online Course:


Heat Illness Prevention Fact Sheet:



Wildfire Smoke Rules Online Course:



Wildfire Smoke Rules Fact Sheet:



At 80 degrees:

Employers should provide shaded areas. Employers must provide at least 32 ounces of drinking water to each employee per hour; it can’t be hotter than 77 degrees.

At 90 degrees Fahrenheit:

Employees should be monitored for heat-related illnesses with frequent check-ins or a buddy system for co-workers to check on each other. Employers should schedule regular breaks. Employers should have emergency medical protocols for heat illness, including a plan to get people to the hospital or clinic in an emergency.

When the air quality index reaches 101 or more:

Employers must monitor air quality, provide information to employees on the risks of exposure to smoke from wildfires. Employers must provide respiratory masks. Employers should adjust work schedules to reduce employee exposure to smoke and heat. Employers must have plans to relocate workers to closed buildings if necessary. Employers should adjust work schedules to reduce employees’ exposure to smoke.

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