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Oregon Heat and Wildfire Rules Set New National Bar

Extreme heat and poor air quality from wildfire smoke are just two outdoor hazards faced by construction workers and other outdoor workers. These hazards are present across the U.S. and Canada but are particularly widespread in many Western states.

LIUNA General
and LHSFNA Labor
Armand E. Sabitoni

With summer heat and wildfire season in full swing, Oregon OSHA took action to protect outdoor workers, creating what’s being hailed as the strongest set of standards in the country. Separate permanent rules for heat and wildfire smoke are replacing emergency temporary standards adopted by Oregon OSHA in the summer of 2021.

“All workers deserve to have their health and safety protected from extreme heat, wildfire smoke and other outdoor hazards,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “These standards create a national model for other states and show that it’s possible to go beyond best practices and move quickly to set strong health and safety standards.”

Heat Illness Prevention Requirements

When federal OSHA launched its national emphasis program on heat illness earlier this year, we discussed how the steps to prevent heat illness are well-known, inexpensive and straightforward. Workers need water, rest, shade and time to acclimatize to the heat. Federal OSHA is moving towards developing a workplace heat standard, though it’s likely at least a year away. So how did Oregon OSHA go about turning known best practices into a standard?

  • Water and shade. Once the heat index reaches 80℉, employers must provide access to shade and cool drinking water (enough for workers to drink up to 32 oz. per hour if necessary) at no cost to workers.
  • At a high index of 90℉ or above, employers must implement a written rest break schedule that takes into account personal protective equipment (PPE), the intensity of the work being performed and other factors that increase workers’ risk. The minimum rest time under the standard is 10 minutes every two hours.
  • Employers can choose to implement their own written acclimatization plan or follow the sample plan issued by NIOSH. Acclimatization is a key issue in mitigating heat illness, as workers who die from heat stroke are often in their first week on the job.
  • High-heat practices. Employers must also monitor workers for heat illness or implement a buddy system, have an emergency medical plan that addresses heat exposure and have a heat illness prevention plan.
  • Employers must provide training to supervisors and workers expected to be exposed to temperatures of 80℉ or more. Workers must be trained on personal risk factors for heat illness, common signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and the importance of quickly reporting signs and symptoms.

The standard includes exemptions for firefighters and other emergency service workers.  And while the standard includes indoor workers, it also exempts workplaces where heat is generated as part of the work process, such as bakeries.

Oregon’s standard considers “high-heat conditions” to begin at a heat index of 90℉, which is lower than the California standard’s trigger of 95℉. The Oregon standard is also more comprehensive regarding acclimatization; it provides two options for employers and gives a route to compliance by following NIOSH tables. In contrast, the California standard only requires employers to “closely observe” workers during heat waves and the first 14 days of employment, without defining what that means for compliance purposes.

Wildfire Smoke Requirements

As climate change drives more frequent wildfires and other extreme weather, concerns over air quality led OSHA programs in several Western states to implement emergency temporary standards on wildfire smoke. Oregon is the first state to create a permanent wildfire smoke standard:

  • Trigger point. Requirements go into effect once airborne fine particulate matter (PM2.5) reaches 35.5 µg/m3, which is the equivalent of 101 on the Air Quality Index (AQI).
  • Monitor AQI at the start of each shift and as needed when workers are likely to be exposed.
  • Use engineering and administrative controls to reduce exposure (e.g., relocate workers to indoor areas with filtered air or outdoor work locations with better air quality).
  • Provide N95 respirators for voluntary use at no cost to workers once the AQI reaches 101. Require use of N95 respirators once the AQI reaches 251 and require elastomeric respirators once the AQI reaches 500.
  • Provide training to supervisors and workers on the hazards of wildfire smoke, symptoms of overexposure and the employer’s plan to reduce exposure.

The wildfire standard exempts workers in buildings with mechanical ventilation systems and workers in enclosed vehicles with properly maintained air filtration systems.

Performing physically demanding tasks for long periods of time puts construction workers at higher risk for both heat illness and the negative health effects of wildfire smoke. Together, these two Oregon OSHA standards set a strong blueprint for how to reduce these hazards. As other state programs and federal OSHA consider similar rules, they should look to Oregon as the new starting point.

[Nick Fox]

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