Washington State to Release Emergency Heat Rules for Farmworkers as Advocates Demand Added Protections

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With temperatures continuing to hover around 100 degrees in fields and orchards east of the Cascades, Washington state is preparing to roll out emergency rules that provide farmworkers more protection from heat-related illnesses.

The first draft of the rules is expected to be released by the state Department of Labor and Industries as early as Friday, according to agency spokesperson Dina Lorraine. Details of protections weren't available Thursday.

Washington's efforts follow those of Oregon, where the state Occupational Safety and Health division on Thursday finalized a new temporary emergency rule — effective immediately and in place for 180 days.

"In the face of an unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest — and tragic consequences — it is absolutely critical that we continue to build up our defenses against the effects of climate change, including extreme heat events," said Andrew Stolfi, director of the state agency that includes Oregon OSHA.

In the two states, more than 180 people died during the heat wave, including an Oregon farmworker whose body was found in a blueberry field. Union and other farmworker advocates in both states have called for more rest breaks, shade and other protections for the men and women working in the heat in Northwest fields and orchards.

In Washington, at least 78 heat-related deaths have been confirmed by state health officials. As of Thursday, there were no reports of Washington farmworkers who  died or were hospitalized after heat exposure, according to Lorraine. State rules require employers to report on-site deaths or hospitalizations of an employee within eight hours, but that doesn't always happen, Lorraine said.

The heat wave that peaked during the end of June in the Pacific Northwest brought temperatures in some areas to 117. As workers pushed through with minimal to no breaks or shade, volunteers for the United Farm Workers and similar organizations made their way out to farmworkers to provide cold water and Gatorades.

Too much emphasis has been placed on protecting crops and not enough on protecting workers, said Edgar Franks, political and campaign director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

FUJ is an independent farmworker union assisting Indigenous workers and families.

"We shouldn't have to wait for farmworkers to die to do something," Franks said. "We can do something right now."

Current Washington heat regulations for farmworkers and outdoor workers, in effect from May through September, require employers to provide water in the fields and heat training upon hiring. It also recommends a heat threshold, encouraging employers to stop work when it hits 90 degrees.

Erik Nicholson, former vice president of the United Farm Workers, joined discussions with state officials this week to improve Washington heat protection rules. He said they need to be strengthened to require workers receive access to shaded breaks during very high temperatures and that the frequency of breaks should be increased during heat waves.

"We have been putting a full-court press on. We are very concerned," Nicholson said.

Nicholson said state officials need to take a deeper look at the 16 heat deaths reported, as of Thursday, in counties east of the Cascades, to determine whether any were farmworkers who may have died at home after finishing a shift.

He said some of the toughest agricultural work during a heat wave involves field labor — such as shifting irrigation pipes or working in hops fields — where shade can be hard to find.

The heat toll that outdoor labor takes in Washington was documented in a study of state worker compensation claim filings. The study, published last year in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, examined 918 claims for heat-related illness submitted by Washington workers during an 11-year period ending in 2017. It found that 654 of those claims were accepted, and concluded state rules may not be adequately protecting workers in the face of more frequent and extreme heat waves.

Heat has been deadly to U.S. farmworkers in the past. In 2005, Manuel Camacho, 64, died from a heat stroke suffered at a farm near Moxee in Yakima County, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic. His death prompted an investigation by the state and helped spur earlier efforts to improve farmworker protection rules, according to Nicholson.

"It has literally taken workers dying before we implement rules. That's California's history. That's Oregon's history. That's our history," he said.

In Washington, Franks reports that some workers became ill during the recent heat wave. He cites the case of a farmworker in Burlington, Skagit County, who showed symptoms of heat stress and was taken to the hospital after she fainted because supervisors were not monitoring for symptoms.

"People didn't know what to do so they were panicking," Franks said. "Making sure our workers and supervisors are given information about heat stress can go a long way."

In addition to ensuring workers receive breaks, shade and water access during these high temperatures, there is a need to simplify the process and explain to workers they won't face retaliation for reporting violations, Franks said.

Some workers, he said, may feel compelled to work through undesirable, and often dangerous, conditions out of fear of reprisal if they refuse to stay on the job.

"It's good to have that language on paper, but in practice, it doesn't look like that on the ground, especially with the amount of pressure that exists in the fields for our workers," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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