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Oregon adopts heat safety rule to protect farm labor and other workers.

Aside from Oregon, only California, Washington State, and Minnesota have heat illness standards. California was the first, in 2006.

In the wake of a heat wave blamed for the death of a farmworker, Oregon adopted an emergency rule on Thursday that guarantees workers rest breaks in the shade and plenty of cool water to drink during hot weather. Farmworker advocates called for the passage of federal protections against heat stress on the job.

“We are tired of going to the funerals of those who have died,” said Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers union. “The time for action is now.” Reyna Lopez, executive director of the Oregon farmworker group PCUN, said, “It has to be national. It has to be strong. It has to be soon.”

Aside from Oregon, only California, Washington State, and Minnesota have heat illness standards. California was the first, in 2006.

Companion heat stress bills in the Senate and House, S 1068 and HR 2193, are modeled on California’s regulation. They would require the Labor Department to write an enforceable heat standard with such measures as paid breaks in cool areas, access to water, limits on time exposed to heat, and treatment of workers with heat-related illness. Sponsors say 815 workers died and more than 70,000 were seriously injured by heat stress in the quarter-century ending in 2017. The bills await committee hearings.

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“Crop workers … are at a higher risk of heat-related death or illness,” says the American Public Health Association. “Climate change is increasing the overall temperature and number of extreme heat events.” Some analysts say the risk for crop workers is 20 times higher than the risk faced by the average worker.

Oregon’s new heat rule requires employers, when the heat index is 90°F. or higher, to provide a 10-minute cool-down rest period in the shade for every two hours of work. The rest area must be as close as practical to the work area. Employers must also provide enough cool or cold water for every employee to drink a quart for each hour on the job. Supervisors also must monitor workers for symptoms of heat illness.

“I am concerned that our recent record-breaking heat wave in the Willamette Valley is a harbinger of what’s to come,” said Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. “No one should have to choose between their health and a paycheck.”

A farmworker, Sebastian Francisco Perez, 38, died at a Willamette Valley nursery midway between Portland and Salem, the state capital, in late June, when the high temperature in the area was 104°F.. Perez, from Guatemala, was part of a crew moving irrigation lines when he was found unconscious.

“Many farmworkers are reluctant to stop work or say they need a break,” because they are paid by each box or pound of crop they harvest, said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice. “They know they won’t get paid.”

Romero, Lopez, and Goldstein urged Congress to pass legislation to give legal status and open a path to citizenship to undocumented farmworkers. Legal status would give workers a greater voice for safe working conditions, they said.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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