Oregon OSHA Adopts New, Permanent Heat and Smoke Rules

Photo by Wikimedia user Bruhmoney77 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Wildfire smoke in Salem in September 2020

Environmental and labor groups offer measured praise for the rules but say they still contain too many loopholes. 

Share this article!

Oregon’s occupational safety and health division, also known as Oregon OSHA, announced this week that it has adopted a permanent set of rules intended to protect workers from high heat and wildfire smoke.

The new rules build on guidelines adopted on an emergency basis in August 2021 in response to Gov. Kate Brown’s Executive Order 20-04, which mandated that Oregon OSHA develop standards to protect Oregonians from heat and smoke. The permanent rules were first proposed in February.

Under the heat rules, which become effective June 15, employers must:

  • Provide access to shade and cool, potable drinking water for employees when temperatures equal or exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Increase paid breaks at 80 and 90 degrees
  • Increase communication, including a “buddy system” to ensure everyone understands the workplace heat-safety plan
  • Provide annual training, acclimatization plans, a heat illness prevention plan and an emergency medical plan

Under the smoke rules, which become effective July 1, employers must:

  • Provide N95 respirators for workers to use once the air-quality index, or AQI, reaches 101 (or “unhealthy for sensitive groups”)
  • Provide administrative or engineering controls to reduce smoke exposure, such as changing work locations or using an HVAC system to filter smoke
  • Require the use of respirators once the AQI reaches 251 and adopt respirators across the board at 500 AQI (considered “hazardous”)

Both sets of rules include exemptions.

The heat rules include exemptions for firefighters and other emergency-service workers, as well as those whose workplaces include heat exposure as part of the job — like bakers.

Those who work in enclosed spaces with filtered air and those who work in enclosed vehicles are exempt from the smoke rules.

According to Renee Stapleton, Oregon OSHA’s acting administrator, the agency will continue to offer free training and education resources to help employers achieve compliance with the new rules.

During June 2021’s record-shattering heat wave, Oregon OSHA received 254 complaints — about 12% of the volume of complaints it receives in a typical year — in just five days, nearly half of which mentioned heat. Five Oregonians died on the job during the heat wave, though just two of those deaths were definitively linked with heat. More than 100 Oregonians died in the heat wave.

A Wednesday press release from the Oregon Environmental Council offered measured praise of the new rules, saying they “provide a strong model for federal standards” but include loopholes “that ultimately prioritize profit over people.”

“We are happy to see Oregon OSHA adopt some of the strongest heat and smoke standards in the country. Concerns remain regarding some areas of these rules, but it is a good start to improving conditions for farmworkers. Our union will be in close communication with workers and OSHA to ensure the rules are being enforced,” said Reyna Lopez, executive director and president of the farmworkers union PCUN, in the OEC release.

For example, the tiered rest and work schedules outlined in the heat rules are confusing and hard to implement, and ultimately give employers too much discretion in determining when workers can rest, according to OEC.

“We know that extreme heat and wildfire smoke are killers. We’re hopeful that the worst effects of climate change can still be avoided, but extreme heat and wildfires will certainly be in Oregon’s immediate future. We are thrilled that Oregon finally has official rules addressing the effects of climate change on worker safety,” said Jamie Pang, environmental health program director for the Oregon Environmental Council, in the release. “The success of these rules will depend on a strong enforcement program that prioritizes human health despite big-business pushback.”

“It’s obviously important for the health and safety of workers. Nurseries, the top sector of ag, has a labor crisis and we can’t afford to put [workers] at risk,” says Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, who served on the advisory committee for adoption of heat and smoke rules.

But Stone is also critical of the rules, saying the rules in their final form are “overly rigid” and reactive to what was likely a one-off event from which the ag sector has “already learned its lessons.”

“I don’t think environmental folks or aggie folks will be happy — which is really kind of par for the course, I think,” Stone says.

To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here