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Washington state issues emergency outdoor heat exposure rule for workers

Second state to do so in past week, following Oregon’s lead

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Washington state has rolled out an emergency rule that provides outdoor workers more protections from heat-related illnesses.

Washington followed in Oregon’s footsteps. That state’s Occupational Safety and Health division Thursday finalized a new temporary emergency rule. It went into effect immediately and will stay in place for 180 days.

Related: Protecting America’s infrastructure workers during summer heat waves

“In the face of an unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest — and tragic consequences — it is absolutely critical that we continue to build up our defenses against the effects of climate change, including extreme heat events,” Andrew Stolfi, director of the state agency that includes Oregon OSHA, said.

Washington is in its second heat wave in as many weeks. High temperatures in eastern parts of the state will hover around 100 degrees through Wednesday. This, after a nearly weeklong late-June triple-digit heat wave in the Northwest produced new all-time records for Spokane (109) and Seattle (107).

More than 180 people died in Washington and Oregon combined during the June heat wave, including an Oregon farmworker whose body was found in a blueberry field. This is according to a Seattle Times report. Union and other farmworker advocates in both states have called for more rest breaks, shade and other protections for the men and women working in the heat in Northwest fields and orchards.

In Washington, at least 78 heat-related deaths have been confirmed by state health officials. Dina Lorraine, spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (DLI), said there were no reports of Washington farmworkers who died or were hospitalized after heat exposure as of Thursday. State rules require employers to report on-site deaths or hospitalizations of an employee within eight hours, but that doesn’t always happen, Lorraine said.

The Seattle Times also reported that as field workers pushed through with minimal to no breaks or shade, volunteers for the United Farm Workers and similar organizations brought them cold water and Gatorade.

The emergency Outdoor Heat Exposure rule, which went into effect Tuesday, clarifies proactive steps that employers must take to prevent outdoor workers from suffering heat-related illness. It updates existing rules that are valid annually from May through September. The rules already require easy access to at least one quart of drinking water per worker per hour, an outdoor heat exposure safety program with training and an appropriate response to workers who are experiencing heat-related illness symptoms.

“The heat experienced in our state this year has reached catastrophic levels. The physical risk to individuals is significant, in particular those whose occupations have them outdoors all day,” said Gov. Jay Inslee. “Our state has rules in place to ensure these risks are mitigated. However, the real impacts of climate change have changed conditions since those rules were first written and we are responding.”

When the temperature is at or above 100 degrees, employers must respond to the extreme heat by:

• Providing shade or another sufficient means for employees to cool down; and
• Ensuring workers have a paid cool-down rest period of at least 10 minutes every two hours.

Related: Dangerous triple-digit heat wave continues across West

When temperatures are at or above 89 degrees, the new rules combined with existing rules require employers to:

• Provide water that is cool enough to drink safely;
• Allow and encourage workers to take additional paid preventative cool-down rest to protect from overheating;
• Be prepared by having a written outdoor heat exposure safety program and providing training to employees; and,
• Respond appropriately to any employee with symptoms of heat-related illness.

The emergency rule is intended to further protect people in the farming, construction and other outdoor industries. However, not everybody thinks it’s a good idea.

State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, a wheat farmer, told news that he took exception to some news reports about the new rules. He believed the reports made farmers look stupid, unresponsive and uncaring.

He noted that farmers have done a lot on their own to help employees during times of hot weather and to adapt to hot working conditions, including by providing shade, water, breaks and working earlier hours to avoid the hottest part of the day.

“These farmers and growers are taking steps on their own to protect their workers, without the heavy hand of Governor Inslee and the Department of Labor and Industries,” Schoesler said.

“These growers value their workers,” he added. “Workers are in short supply, and if you don’t treat them well, they leave.”

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.