Heat wave tests Oregon workplace safety rules
New state rules require access to water, shade and breaks on hot days, but workers say they are still working in unsafe conditions.
Skyler Fischer is a forklift driver at a Fred Meyer distribution center in the town of Clackamas. He has worked there for 12 years and works at least four days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. Fischer said he was allowed two 15-minute breaks each shift.
When temperatures soared to 102 degrees Fahrenheit in the Portland metro area on Tuesday, Fischer said he was exhausted. He said the warehouse has no air conditioning, no ceiling fans or any type of air circulation in the building. He said the only time he could cool off was during his lunch break when he could eat in an air-conditioned office.
“I usually come home and do stuff, but I kind of collapsed on the couch because I was so exhausted,” he told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
In May, Oregon’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health adopted permanent rules to protect workers working in excessive heat or wildfire smoke. They are some of the strongest protections in the country for employees working outdoors or in workplaces without air conditioning.
But this week, with daily highs consistently hitting triple digits, puts Oregon OSHA’s recently implemented heat rules to the test. Some Oregonians said they were still working in unsafe conditions despite new heat rules.
The rules went into effect last month and apply when temperatures in a work environment reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They require employers to provide access to shaded areas, cool drinking water and extra breaks to cool off and acclimate to the heat. The rule also requires employers to provide training on the prevention of heat-related illnesses.
Aaron Corvin, public information officer for Oregon OSHA, said the agency opened an inspection related to the Fred Meyer facility.
A statement from Fred Meyer said the company had installed a mechanical cooling station at its 1 million square foot warehouse in Clackamas. On days of high temperatures, the company provides its employees with ice water bottles, water fountains, frozen treats and cold towels. A distribution team is also taking daily temperatures throughout the facility and said temperatures this week did not exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the release.
Last summer, the Pacific Northwest experienced a heat dome event in which nearly 100 people died of heat-related illnesses in Oregon alone. At least four of them happened at work and were reported by Oregon OSHA.
This included a farm worker who collapsed and died on a farm north of Salem and a construction worker who fell ill while inspecting a roof in Hillsboro, checked himself into a hospital and died nine days later. late.
Shortly after the first workplace fatality was reported, several labor rights groups and environmental organizations called on Governor Kate Brown to take action and order Oregon OSHA to issue temporary heat rules to protect the workers. The agency has since adopted these rules permanently after more than a year and a half of rulemaking.
This process defines employers’ expectations and their obligations to protect workers from extreme heat hazards, Oregon OSHA’s Corvin said.
He said since the rules came into force on June 15, there have been at least 137 open inspections related to occupational hazards and heat-related complaints. Oregon OSHA has so far issued nine citations for non-compliance with heat rules.
“I would definitely expect us to have more,” Corvin said.
Most of the ongoing inspections relate to the restaurant industry, warehouse workplaces and construction sites. A citation or infraction may result in a fine.
Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, known as PCUN, along with other labor rights and environmental groups, have been advocating for rules like these for years.
PCUN climate policy associate Ira Cuello-Martinez said that, for the most part, the PCUN hears from its members that employers are following the new rules. Some even go beyond what is necessary, such as providing saltine crackers and electrolyte drinks to help maintain hydration and encourage extra breaks.
But Cuello-Martinez also heard from farmworkers that some employers were not enforcing any of the rules.
“Some workers weren’t even aware of the rule’s application and received no training from their employers about excessive heat,” he said.
Under the new rules, workers should receive training in language they understand about the dangers of working in extreme heat, Cuello-Martinez said. He said it’s unclear whether employers are providing flyers, allowing employees to ask questions or giving them time to digest new information.
Meanwhile, several business organizations have criticized the new rules, saying they are of no help to employers or employees. Three groups — Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, Associated Oregon Loggers Inc. and the Oregon Forest Industries Council — even sued the state in June to try to prevent the rules from taking effect.
Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of government and legal affairs for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the rules are too prescriptive and have caused confusion among farmers, ranchers and farm workers.
The new documentation and reporting requirements also pose logistical challenges for some small family operations, Cooper added.
“This year has been a real challenge for our employers to meet these fairly onerous new rules while maintaining a workforce and keeping their employees happy,” Cooper said.
Last year, the Biden administration pledged to begin crafting federal rules to protect workers from heat-related illnesses after extreme heat injured or killed dozens of workers.
Currently, Washington and California have temporary rules to protect workers and are developing permanent rules. Workers in other states are protected by the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s General Duty Clause, which requires employers to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious injury to employees.
Groshell said he hopes other states will pass laws similar to Oregon’s, so that would force the federal government to pass tougher regulations.
“Or the other way it’s going to happen is we’re going to have more and more people dying,” he said.