OSHA Emergency Smoke Rule & Protections – Press Release


For immediate release- August 2, 2021


Ira Cuello-Martinez, PCUN iracuello@pcun.org, (503) 851-5774 

Kate Suisman, Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, kate@nwjp.org, (503) 765-7105

Jamie Pang, Oregon Environmental Council, JamieP@OECOnline.org, (971) 353-7963

Nargess Shadbeh, Oregon Law Center, nshadbeh@oregonlawcenter.org (503) 484-6073 

Oregon OSHA Adopts Emergency Smoke Rule and Some Heat Protections for Farmworkers in Agricultural Labor Housing; Strong Enforcement Still Needed 

SALEM, Ore— On August 2nd, 2021, Oregon OSHA issued an emergency rule protecting workers from wildfire smoke exposure, adding to the recent emergency rule protecting workers from climate-fueled excessive heat. Oregon OSHA also adopted a rule to address excessive heat in employer-provided 

housing such as farmworker housing. This inclusion is important since these workers are often excluded from basic safety and health protections. 

In a summer already marked by unprecedented temperatures and an already devastating wildfire season, advocacy groups have pressed Oregon OSHA to adopt emergency rules, similar to rules already in place in other states, to protect workers from climate hazards. The wildfire smoke exposure rules enacted today are a positive step, but they will need strong enforcement and should be considered only a baseline for a more protective approach through the permanent rules, which will likely be adopted in the late fall. 

“Oregon has been at the center of the climate crisis this summer, shattering any illusion that the Pacific Northwest is immune from the devastating effects of climate change,” says Jamie Pang, environmental health program director at Oregon Environmental Council. “Today’s rules show us that wildfires, drought, and extreme heat are not only a national crisis, but an Oregon crisis, and our officials must act accordingly to protect the health and lives of all workers.” 

“Oregon farmworkers faced multiple extreme weather events over the last year and are asking for basic protections and working conditions. We are glad to see Oregon OSHA take a step in the right direction as we navigate through the climate crisis and protect workers’ health.” said Reyna Lopez, Executive Director of PCUN. 

Kate Suisman, attorney at the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, added, “With these new temporary smoke rules, workers finally have some protections from climate-related smoke hazards. We are glad to see robust training and hazard communication requirements, as well as voluntary and mandatory respirator use.”

Nargess Shadbeh, Director of the Farmworker Program at the Oregon Law Center (OLC) said, “Employers provide housing because they need workers during critical periods of production. However, those living in a congregated setting with high-density sleeping and living areas, many with shared portable toilets, outdoor sinks, and single burners, are not living an easy life. Add the COVID-19 variant, low vaccination rates, excessive heat and wildfire smoke, and the residents of employer-provided housing can face high risk of disease and injury. With these temporary rules, OR OSHA has at last taken a stand: The residents of employer-provided housing are to be protected against wildfire smoke hazards the same as any employee faced with hazardous AQI, such as those in a warehouse. Going forward, the focus should be on solutions with clear standards rather than the exclusion of certain groups of workers as the norm.” 

Under the new temporary rules, at the 101 AQI (“unhealthy for sensitive groups”) level, employers must provide N95 respirators for voluntary use and require training on the hazards of smoke if work operations are to continue. 

At the 201 AQI (“very unhealthy”) level, employers must use feasible administrative or engineering controls to reduce smoke exposure and require the use of N95 respirators. A complete respiratory protection program is required at 500 AQI (“hazardous”). 

Employees are protected from retaliation via existing statutes. But unlike the temporary heat rule, there is no buddy system required, and no additional breaks when air quality becomes hazardous. 

OSHA has also enacted some additional heat protections for agricultural labor housing. 

In a separate temporary rule, OSHA has also required minimal protections for agricultural labor housing from heat. Recognizing the congregated settings with high density and little opportunity for cooling, Advocates asked Oregon OSHA to adopt temporary rules to reduce the risk of heat illness in extreme heat. It is critical that farmworkers have some relief after working in extreme heat before toiling in the fields the following day. The agency is now requiring employers to keep sleeping rooms at the labor housing at or below 78 F when the heat index outside is at or above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or to provide communal cooling areas for at least 50% of the occupants at each of the labor housing sites. OR OSHA has done the bare minimum here to avoid further delay in offering cooling relief to the occupants of labor housing, Provisions of HEPA air purifiers in high density areas would reduce the contraction of COVID 19 and its variant and reduce wildfire smoke hazards, we are disappointed that OR OSHA is not specifying this common sense approach in congregated areas more clearly. 

Nargess Shadbeh of OLC said, “The residents of employer-provided housing finally have some limited cooling relief from excessive heat at employer-provided housing.” 

Oregon OSHA is in the process of drafting permanent rules to protect workers from exposure to both excessive heat and wildfire smoke, expected to be finalized this fall. Advocates reflecting the voices of essential workers, will continue to push for the strongest possible permanent protections and strong enforcement for workers through the ongoing rulemaking processes.

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