OSHA Investigating 117 Workplace Complaints Made Due to Heat Wave

Five Oregonians died during record-shattering temperatures — though only two have been linked to heat.

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Oregonians filed 254 complaints with the Oregon Occupational Safety & Health Administration between June 24 and 28, nearly half of which described unsafe working conditions related to that week’s record-shattering heat.

The agency released complaint data this week in response to a request from Oregon Business. According to Oregon OSHA spokesperson Aaron Corvin, typically the agency receives about 2,000 complaints about workplace safety per year — meaning in that five-day stretch, it fielded about 12% of the complaints it would normally get in a year.

Of those, 117 made some mention of the heat wave. One recurring complaint was that employers operated with inadequate or malfunctioning cooling systems — and refused to close businesses as temperatures soared.

And five Oregonians died on the job in those days, according to OSHA, though only two have been identified as heat-related deaths. 

Those who lost their lives at work during the heat wave include a farmworker who died at a St. Paul worksite June 26 and a warehouse worker who died June 24 in Hermiston. The farmworker, Sebastian Francisco Perez, died due to heat, where the warehouse worker’s cause of death is still unknown, according to OSHA.

The agency’s tally of workplace deaths between June 24 and June 30 also includes a death at a Hillsboro construction site June 28 attributed to heat stress and a June 29 death at a Klamath Falls farm due to unknown causes. (It’s unlikely the fifth workplace death to take place in that window was heat-related; according to OSHA, on June 27 a truck driver was killed in a motor vehicle accident in Oakridge.)

All of those incidents are under investigation, according to Corvin. 

“We do not discuss the status or details of ongoing investigations. When we complete an investigation, the results are public,” says Corvin.  

Last week OSHA announced that it had made new rules requiring employers to mitigate the effects of high temperatures on workers who might be exposed to them. Per those rules, when the ambient heat index reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit, employers must provide access to shade and water; once it reaches 90 degrees, they must have an emergency medical plan to deal with heat-related illness.  

Complaints also describe workplaces where employees weren’t provided water, shade-sufficient break time, or training in how to recognize and respond to signs of heat-related illness.

Restaurants were among the most frequent subjects of complaints, possibly because the heat wave fell mostly on a weekend, when restaurants are more likely to be open than other businesses — and because commercial kitchens are hot to begin with. 
Most complaints described broken air-conditioning; one complaint said that at a Clackamas McDonald’s, the heater was on and the employer was “unable/unwilling to turn it off, causing extreme heat for employees and customers.”

Another complaint, made June 29, described temperatures in the mid-90s in the kitchen and signs of illness among employees at the downtown location of Voodoo Doughnut. On June 27, workers — who attempted a union drive earlier this year — walked out midday, planning to come back to work on June 29. Three employees were fired for unexcused absences. 

Other restaurant-related complaints described hotter temperatures in kitchens and little help from management, with employees being threatened with termination if they walked off the job. 

“The majority of restaurants rely on regularly maintained heating and cooling systems to protect the health and safety of their employees and their guests,” said an emailed statement from Jason Brandt, president and CEO of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association. “As with virtually all industry sectors, industry operators were deeply concerned about the historic heat wave and the impact the event would have on their employees and their customers.” Brandt added that ORLA is “generally supportive of the steps being taken by Oregon OSHA to prevent heat-related illnesses and ensure staff have access to needed breaks and shade.”

According to public officials, 116 Oregonians died during the heat wave. Earlier this week, Multnomah County released a preliminary review of the deaths of Multnomah County residents; most, it says, died at home in spaces that were not air-conditioned.

Earlier this month, Oregon Business reported that heating and cooling vendors were so overwhelmed during the heat wave that many stopped accepting new clients — and that the industry, like other skilled-trades occupations, faces ongoing staffing shortages.

According to Corvin, OSHA investigates all the complaints it receives, beginning with a phone call, email or letter. 

“Sometimes, all it takes is a phone call to get things straightened out,” Corvin writes in an email comment to OB.

“Generally speaking, we want to know what the employer is doing to address the complaint,” Corvin writes. “Our expectation is that an employer engages with us in a thoughtful manner. If an employer refuses to engage with us — or if we get the sense we’re being sold a bill of goods (and if we know how to contact the complainant, whose identity we can legally keep confidential, then we can gather more information and follow up with the complainant) — then the likelihood of an on-site inspection increases markedly.”

The only time employers are cited and penalized, according to Corvin, is if OSHA opens an inspection and identifies a violation.

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