Oregon OSHA takes action on heat and smoke

Remember this? The sky was a sickly yellow-brown Sept. 16, 2020 when smoke from catastrophic wildfires gave much of Oregon the worst air quality in the world for days. It won’t be the last time. Advocates have pushed for OSHA to make it clear it’s not safe to work outdoors in bad air conditions. | PHOTO BY MOTOYA NAKAMURA, COURTESY OF MULTNOMAH COUNTY


Five years after advocates began pleading for rules protecting workers exposed to extreme heat and wildfire smoke, and nearly two years after Governor Kate Brown ordered it, Oregon OSHA is finalizing rules that would do that. 

The new rules can’t come too soon. 

In the last decade, West coast “fire season” has grown to nearly half the year. In September 2020, wildfire smoke broke new record for bad air quality. The Air Quality Index (AQI), is the Environmental Protection Agency’s index for reporting air quality. It runs from 0 to 500. Portland’s previous record was 157 (unhealthy); on Sept. 13, 2020, it reached 477, considered “hazardous.” 

And it seems unlikely that the Western North America “heat dome” of June 26-28, 2021 will be the last. For three days, temperatures broke all-time records locally, reaching 116°F in Portland and 117°F in Salem.

On Feb. 1, Oregon OSHA released its final draft rules, and scheduled a series of hearings for public comment through March 4. As proposed, Oregon’s rules could be the strongest in the country. 

But worker safety advocates say they’re still not good enough. To point out weaknesses in the rules, a coalition including the Oregon AFL-CIO, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon Environmental Council, Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, and Climate Jobs PDX organized to testify at the hearings.

Among changes the coalition would like to see to the rules are removal of the exemption from protections for work considered “light,” setting the trigger for respirator requirement at AQI 201, the beginning of very unhealthy, vs. at 251, in the middle of the EPA’s very unhealthy category, and lastly, closing the loophole for protecting workers from excessive heat in farmworker housing so that all farmworkers are well protected.

Dana Carstensen, a Metro employee and officer of AFSCME 3580, was one of those offering testimony. As a hazardous waste technician, Carstensen works outdoors and wears full PPE. Last summer, after four days of high heat, he started feeling dizzy a few hours into his 10-hour shifts. Cartensen urged Oregon OSHA to remove exemptions for “light work,” because many workers alternate between “light work” and heavy work during a work day.

“Within a span of minutes I can go from processing incredibly poisonous bottles of pesticides that weigh less than a pound each to lifting dozens of 50-lbs bucks of paint to be recycled or moving drums of flammable material that weigh hundreds of pounds.”

Written comments on the rules are due March 18.

In October, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that federal OSHA will also being work to develop nationwide minimum heat standards.



When workers are exposed to wildfire smoke that produces an air quality index (AQI) of 101 or higher, employers will have to:

  • Assess air quality at the start of shifts and as needed.
  • Let workers know there is unsafe air quality.
  • Provide respirators
  • Relocate employees, install filtration systems or reschedule shifts when possible to avoid bad air quality.
  • Employers must maintain more stringent respirator use safety programs for workplaces reaching 250 AQI and 500 AQI.


When the heat index (temperature plus humidity) is 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, employers must:

  • Ensure workers have access to at least one shaded area with airflow, with enough room for all employees who are resting at a given time.
  • Supply enough cool drinking water for each worker to drink up to 32 ounces per hour, and provide opportunities for workers to do so.
  • Ensure workers get, at minimum, a 10-minute break every 2 hours when working between 90 and 100 degrees, and a 15-minute break every 2 hours at above 100 degrees.

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