New statewide rules to protect workers from excessive heat and wildfire smoke went into effect this summer in Oregon. The emergency adoption of these policies serves as a way to help people who work outdoors in increasingly more commonplace extreme weather and climate events.
The new rules will be in place for six months while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in Oregon works on more permanent rules. Since spring 2020, Oregon OSHA has been working alongside labor – including PROTEC17 – and other community stakeholders in an effort to expand worker protections against this new threat.
Under the new rules related to air quality that went into effect on Aug. 9, employers are required to change work schedules or relocate work whenever possible when air quality levels reach 201 – considered in the ‘very unhealthy’ zone on air quality indexes. If workers are going to be exposed to air quality at that level or above, then employers must ensure that workers wear N95 respirators. This year, employers are allowed to provide KN95 masks as long as air quality levels are below 499.
Employers will also be required to maintain an adequate supply of respirators for air quality levels of 101 or higher (considered unhealthy for sensitive groups), develop a communication system to alert workers to air quality hazards, and to train workers on the health risks of wildfire smoke and emergency procedures by Aug. 16.
Wildfires across California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia last year brought hazardous air quality to many regions and showed that poor air quality issues were not properly addressed in workplace regulations. Many workers who performed work outside remained on the job with limited protections.
In addition to wildfire smoke, rules protecting workers from extreme heat went into effect in July. These will require employers to provide access to water and additional breaks on days when outside temperatures exceed 80 degrees. For workers living in labor housing, employers will need to block windows and offer fans at no cost when indoor temperatures are over 78 degrees. Several workers in both Oregon and Washington died of heat-related illnesses after record-breaking temperatures in June across the region.
“The strong temporary emergency rules that resulted from this process showed the important influence that Labor had in making workers’ voices heard on these critical issues,” said PROTEC17’s Research Director and Oregon Legislative Advocate, Elliot Levin, who particpated on the committee.
PROTEC17 will continue to work with the OSHA committee to make sure these rules are as protective as possible at the state level. We are also working with the City of Portland to discuss their implementation of these rules, as well as expanded wildfire smoke guidance for management and supervisors during heat and smoke events that maintain the health and safety of all employees.