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Oregon: The toughest heat protection law in the US

by Daniela Gschweng
Heat waves are becoming more frequent and longer
Farm workers, people on construction sites, and even firefighters have been largely dependent on the goodwill of their employers during a heat wave. How long Oregon's heat protection law will remain in effect is an open question. A group has filed a lawsuit against it.
Oregon: the toughest heat protection law in the U.S.

by Daniela Gschweng
After a farm worker died in Oregon because of heat, the U.S. state adjusted its laws.
[This article published on 7/14/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

As of June 15, 2022, one of the northern states in the U.S., of all places, has the strictest regulations for people who work outside. In the future, employers in Oregon must provide cool water and shaded areas when the temperature reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) and provide additional breaks. Workers and laborers must be trained on how to avoid heat exhaustion and what to do in an emergency.

The heat protection law had been years in the making, but it was the death of a farm worker in June 2021 that finally tipped the scales. Fellow workers found 38-year-old Sebastian Francisco Perez collapsed among the trees of a large nursery where he had been laying irrigation lines in temperatures around 40 degrees. By the time the ambulance arrived, he had stopped breathing.

The nursery Perez was working for at the time had not provided him with information on how to protect himself from heat, investigators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration later determined.
Oregon is one of the northern states in the United States. One would have expected heat protection laws more in the South and Southwest. © Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 2.0

Perez was not the only victim of the June 2021 heat wave, which caused high temperatures as far away as Canada. In Oregon alone, more than 100 people died because of heat; a construction worker and a Walmart store worker also died on the job. Nor was it the first high-profile case: in 2011, a farm worker who collapsed while harvesting corn in the U.S. state of Illinois was not found for 50 days.

Farm does not see itself as responsible

The Brother Farm Labor Contractor agency, where Perez was employed, paid $2100 in fines and changed its work processes, according to the company. Ernst Nursery&Farms, where Perez was working that June day, had been warned in previous inspections for not providing workers with restrooms and water.

To OSHA, Ernst Nursery&Farms defended itself, saying workers are "responsible for how far they put their bodies." The farm was fined $4200 and appealed.

Oregon is only the third U.S. state to introduce heat-trapping laws, reports the nonprofit The Fern in collaboration with U.S. magazine Mother Jones. So far, only California and Washington have heat protection laws, in addition to Oregon. Minnesota has a law that applies only to indoor work.

Heat waves are becoming more frequent and longer

Farm workers, people on construction sites, and even firefighters have been largely dependent on the goodwill of their employers during a heat wave. How long Oregon's heat protection law will remain in effect is an open question. A group representing more than 1,000 local businesses has filed a lawsuit against it.

Statistically, farm workers in the U.S. are 35 times more likely to die a heat-related death than the average resident. About 21 days per season are already considered hazardous for working outside in the U.S., most in California and Florida, according to a 2020 study. By 2100, that number will be three times higher. In particularly hard-hit states like Texas, there will be four to five times as many heat days, according to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) projections.
There will be many times more summer heat days in the U.S. in the mid-21st century than in the late 20th century. © NOAA (Dan Pisut,Richard Rivera, Mary Jo Nath, Gabriel Lau)

The structure of the U.S. labor market is unlikely to reduce the threat. Even the most ambitious legislation will not reach many working in agriculture because they are sans-papiers like Perez. Those tied to employers by work visas also have little recourse.

The employer is not always the farm where the agricultural workers are employed, but an agency that hires out workers. Many workers do not speak English and do not have access to adequate health care, and they are often paid by the pound, bucket or bundle.

Climate crisis exposes gaps in other areas

"That's where all the gaps come together," Roxana Chicas, a nurse and professor at Emory University's Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, tells The Fern. It's not just about action on the climate crisis, she said; worker protections, immigration laws and public health are also lacking.

Twenty-two farm workers in the U.S. have died from heat during the past five years, "The Fern" lists, according to OSHA data. But the registries are incomplete, the magazine writes, listing examples documented by other media outlets.

National legislation is a long time coming

Not only farm workers are affected, but also, for example, parts of the urban population living in poorly insulated housing. In Portland, free fans are now being distributed as a result of the deadly heat wave, reports the Portland Mercury. In October 2021, the U.S. government announced it was preparing national legislation. Implementation could take seven to 12 years. Too long for the now already more frequent and longer heat waves.

Doctors working in affected areas told The Fern of workers who are disoriented and vomiting - signals of a body under severe heat stress. Emergency medical technicians and nurses then treat affected workers with ice packs and chilled IVs to keep their organs from failing. In more graphic terms, "We're trying to cool them down before they cook to death," says nurse Morgan Raines, who has treated heat victims in Oregon and Florida.

Heat does long-term harm, even if it doesn't kill

Even if heat doesn't cause death, as it did for Perez, it can damage the body. Workers don't just complain of effects like frequent muscle cramps. One study that measured kidney levels in farm workers found them as high in hot weather as they usually are when kidney injuries occur.

Migrant farm workers suffer from chronic kidney disease far earlier than average U.S. citizens, needing dialysis as early as age 30 or 40, experts like Raines report. The connection has not yet been studied in detail. Pregnant women are also more at risk. Premature births and stillbirths are more common due to heat stress.

Meanwhile, the Agricultural Employers Association believes that additional regulation is not needed because employers already care. OSHA has announced it will inspect workplaces if a worker has been hospitalized for heat-related ailments.

WhatsApp groups and colorful clothing instead of regulation

"It's better than nothing," says Juley Fulcher, in charge of worker health and safety at the consumer organization Public Citizen. But money and staff are lacking for efficient controls, say several nongovernmental organizations, unions and even the agency itself.

In California, the number of heat deaths in agriculture has dropped since heat protection laws went into effect there. In other states, nongovernmental organizations warn about heat waves via WhatsApp and conduct heat training sessions. Workers learn, for example, to work only in pairs and to wear bright colors so that they can be found more easily. They currently have no other means.

Heat protection laws in Switzerland

In Switzerland, for work in agriculture, there are only recommendations from SECO on what to do in the heat. The law only protects against excessive UV radiation. Pregnant women are not allowed to work at more than 28 degrees if they feel unwell. What other regulations there are, "Watson" has compiled here.
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