By GRAHAM TRAINOR, Oregon AFL-CIO president
There are two new rules at Oregon OSHA that will protect Oregon’s workers on the job. One protects workers from heat exposure, and the other protects workers from smoke exposure. The heat rule went into effect on June 15, 2022, and the smoke rule went into effect on July 1, 2022. Throughout the process to define these new rules, the Oregon AFL-CIO and advocates for workplace safety worked to ensure the rules reflected the needs of everyone who is exposed to high heat and wildfire smoke while working. As we saw with the heat wave in June 2021, the stakes are too high: Human lives are on the line, and it is absolutely critical that we have strong rules in place.
The rules we advocated for are straightforward and simple: For heat, employers are to provide shade, water, a rest-break schedule when heat hits 90 degrees, acclimatization to working in hot conditions, and a heat illness prevention plan. For smoke, the rules require specific face piece respirators, training on exposure and monitoring, communication with employees before they are exposed, and the use of engineering and monitoring controls, including relocating outdoor work to enclosed buildings or making work schedule changes based on the air quality. These rules reflect a new reality for workers.
Oregon has changed, and high temperatures and wildfire smoke are now a perennial occurrence. We see these changes in our agricultural workers toiling under orange and red skies, cloth face masks in place to offer some protection from smoke. We see these changes as entire communities suffer from the disastrous effects of a wildfire. We see these changes as workers suffer heat stroke, heat exhaustion and even death due to working outside in triple digit temperatures. On June 26, 2021, Sebastian Francisco Perez collapsed and died from heat exposure while working in the fields of the Ernst Nursery in St. Paul. He had turned 38 the day before he died. It’s workers like Sebastian who represent the clear and present danger of working outside without protections during a heatwave. His story, and the stories of workers like him, are why these rules are so important. These changes to Oregon mean that we must change too. That’s why Oregon’s unions and our allies pushed for the most progressive set of heat and smoke protections in the country, although only 22 states have the authority to set such standards in the workplace. We stood together for the basic protections workers deserve to stay safe, protections that should have already been in place.
As often happens with progress, there is pushback on the new protections. In late June a lawsuit was filed against the new rules from Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce (OMC), Associated Oregon Loggers Inc. (AOL) and the Oregon Forest Industries Council (OFIC). The lawsuit claims the rules are unconstitutional. Oregon’s unions and our allies will not stand for these rules to be threatened: There is simply too much at stake for us to suffer a rollback to these critical protections. The rules are still in place, but must be protected.
Lawsuits from employers will not stop our fight to protect workers like Sebastian who deserve better. It is our duty to protect them through common sense rules in the workplace. Oregon is hotter and smokier than ever before in the summertime, and workers who keep our communities running by working outside deserve adequate protections while doing their jobs. An injury to one is an injury to all, and Oregon’s unions are committed to ensuring these protections remain in place for workers.
The Oregon AFL-CIO is a federation of labor unions.