Amid Historic High Temps, Oregon OSHA Looks to Enforce New Heat Law

Motoya Nakamura/Multnomah County

The workplace safety agency has opened 50 inspections for heat-related violations since July 1.

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As a heat wave broils Oregon and much of the Western U.S., safety regulators expect to start citing employers with new, stiffer penalties enacted following a deadly heat event in 2021.

By Tuesday, temperatures in the Portland metro area had hovered around 100 degrees for four days. The National Weather Service predicts temps will remain above-average into next week.

New workplace safety rules and increased civil penalties were permanently enacted in Oregon at the beginning of this year. Oregon OSHA has yet to issue citations but expects to do so, a spokesman wrote to Oregon Business. Since June 15, Oregon OSHA has opened an estimated 186 inspections including for potential heat-related hazards, according to spokesman Aaron Corvin. About 50 of those have been opened since July 1.

A temporary heat rule was enacted in 2021 in the aftermath that summer’s record-shattering heat wave, during which at least five Oregon workers died on the job, though not all those deaths were directly related to heat. A permanent rule took effect the next year. Since then, Oregon OSHA has issued an estimated 174 citations related to the heat rule.

Oregon OSHA’s heat emphasis program directs inspectors to address heat concerns during all inspections during summer months and not just heat-specific inspections.

“Oregon OSHA inspectors do not have ticket books,” Corvin wrote. “They are not like police officers who pull over speeders and issue tickets on the spot. Inspections of workplaces can take time. But as our inspection activity indicates, we are in the field and addressing heat illness prevention with employers. And oftentimes, we are able to secure corrections of hazards we identify during an inspection before a citation is issued.”

Workplace rules require employers across all industries in Oregon to protect their workers from hazards of extreme heat. They must provide water, shade, rest, training and acclimatization, which involves workers gradually adapting to work in the heat.

Oregon OSHA’s requirements are available online in English and Spanish.

Above 80 degrees, employers must provide shaded, ventilated or open areas where workers can rest. The shaded areas must be as close as “practical” and able to accommodate all workers on shift.

Employers must provide outdoor workers four cups of water, or about a quarter of a gallon, and the water must be under 77 degrees. They must provide breaks to prevent heat-related illness with the breaks counted as a work assignment. Employers with worksites that exceed 80 degrees must train employees on compliance requirements, heat-related dangers and best practices to avoid them. Employers must also develop plans that allow employees to adapt to conditions of more than 80 degrees.

Employees must be equipped to call for medical assistance with accommodations made for employees working alone.

The most vulnerable workers are workers on their first day. Nearly half of victims of heat-related workplace deaths are on their first day and more than 70% of heat-related deaths occur in a worker’s first week, according to OSHA.

As with all heat waves, the greatest danger is posed to the very young, the elderly and people with medical conditions, according to The Oregonian, which interviewed the clinical medical director of Providence Health & Services.

Oregon OSHA offers employers help to comply with the heat rule in the form of consultants who can help businesses with health and safety compliance.

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