Business groups challenge Oregon rules designed to protect workers from heat, smoke from wildfires

A coalition of Oregon business groups has filed a lawsuit challenging U.S. workplace rules requiring employers to take steps to protect workers from extreme heat and smoke from wildfires.

Ordinances passed in May by the Oregon Department of Safety and Health set out the steps employers must take once air temperature or air quality reaches a certain threshold. The heat rules came into force on June 15th, while the rules for smoke from forest fires are due to come into force on July 1st.

Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, Associated Oregon Loggers Inc. and the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, which together represent more than 1,000 Oregon companies and 50 forest landowners, are seeking a ban on banning the state from enforcing the new rules. The groups filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Medford on the day the first of the rules went into effect, arguing they were unconstitutional.

The groups argue that several provisions in the new regulations are too vague to be fairly applied and that the State Agency for Occupational Safety has exceeded its legal powers by adopting them in the first place.

The groups argue that forest fire smoke rules do not give employers a method for determining what percentage of air pollutants in the workplace are caused by forest fire smoke compared to other factors that groups say make it impossible for employers to know when the rules come into force.

They also argue that the requirement for employers to pay workers during breaks to prevent heat illness exceeds state authority, and that the Oregon Safe Employment Act does not give the U.S. Workplace Safety Agency “the authority to regulate general public hazards.” affecting employees inside and outside the work environment “

Sean Gillians, chief executive of Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, said the state must work with employers to create new rules that will protect workers and businesses.

“Nothing is more important to employers than keeping workers safe in the workplace,” Gillians said in a statement. “This is especially true for Oregon producers, who have an exemplary record. But OR-OSHA’s new rules on heat and smoke are unfortunately based on random numbers that have the potential to disrupt countless Oregon industries. The regulations are vague, almost impossible to ensure compliance and are applied under conditions that would be considered safe and reasonable.

An OSHA spokesman in Oregon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Defenders of workers, who have lobbied for years for the state to adopt protection from forest fires and heat, praised the new rules after they were adopted in May, while calling for stricter requirements for holidays and housing for workers.

Heat rules require employers to provide enough shady areas, enough water and more and more frequent holiday breaks with rising temperatures. It also requires employers to develop heat prevention plans, train employees and supervisors on heat diseases, and ensure that employees are given time to acclimatize to the heat and be regularly monitored while working at high temperatures. .

The rules also require employers to protect workers from heat in agricultural workers’ homes, including giving workers access to cooling zones and fans.

Forest fire smoke regulations require employers to provide training to employees on the dangers of forest fire smoke, to provide respirators when air quality reaches unhealthy levels, or to require workers to wear respirators if air quality levels jump above ” very unhealthy ”251 per 500-point Air Quality Index. The state also recommends that employers consider relocating to other jobs when air quality is unhealthy.

The federal government does not have such rules, although it is developing heating regulations. Several states have adopted their own thermal standards, and California has rules to protect workers from extreme heat and smoke from wildfires.

Oregon adopted temporary emergency rules to protect workers from extreme heat and smoke from wildfires last year after workers across the state were exposed to harsh working conditions during the unprecedented heat of June 2021 and wildfires in September 2020. These rules expired earlier this year.

At least two workers, agricultural worker Sebastian Francisco Perez and construction worker Dan Harris, have died from heat-related illnesses after working in the heat of June. They were among nearly 100 people in Oregon who died during last year’s heat wave, when temperatures reached 116 in Portland and even higher elsewhere, breaking all-time high temperatures in the state.

Gov. Kate Brown ordered OSHA’s Oregon and Oregon Health Services to develop standards to protect employees from excessive heat and smoke from wildfires as early as March 2020. This was part of a broader enforcement order requiring some government agencies to commit with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.

– Jamie Goldberg; [email protected]; @jamiebgoldberg

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