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Business groups sue over heat and smoke worker protections

The new regulations require employers to act once temperature or air quality exceed certain thresholds. The heat rules began June 15 and the smoke rule start July 1.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Some Oregon business groups are suing over the state’s new job site rules mandating that employers take steps to protect workers from extreme heat and wildfire smoke.

Regulations adopted by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division mandate that employers act once the temperature or air quality reaches a certain threshold. The heat rules took effect June 15, while the wildfire smoke rules start July 1.

Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, Associated Oregon Loggers Inc. and the Oregon Forest & Industries Council are seeking an injunction to stop the state from enforcing the rules, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Together the groups represent over 1,000 Oregon companies and 50 forestland owners.

They filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Medford last week.

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The groups allege several provisions are too vague to be fairly enforced and that the state’s workplace safety agency overstepped its statutory authority by adopting them.

The groups also contend the wildfire smoke rules don’t give employers a method for determining what percentage of the pollutants in the air at a worksite are caused by wildfire smoke versus other factors, which the groups say makes it impossible for employers to know when the rules go into effect.

They further say requiring employers to pay workers during heat illness prevention breaks oversteps state authority.

Shaun Jillions, executive director for Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, said the state needs to work with employers to craft new rules that will protect workers and businesses.

A spokesperson for Oregon OSHA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the newspaper.

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Worker advocates, who for years lobbied for the protections, have praised the new rules.

The heat rules require employers to provide shaded areas, water and rest breaks. They also require employers to develop heat prevention plans and protect workers from heat in agricultural labor housing, among other measures.

The wildfire smoke rules say employers must provide smoke danger training, make respirators available as the air quality reaches unhealthy levels or require workers to wear respirators if air quality levels spike above “very unhealthy” levels on the Air Quality Index.

The federal government does not have similar rules, although it is developing heat regulations. Several states have adopted their own heat standards, including Washington and California.

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Oregon adopted temporary emergency rules to protect workers from extreme heat and wildfire smoke last year after workers across the state were exposed to harsh conditions during unprecedented heat in June 2021 and wildfires in September 2020.

At least two workers died from heat-related illnesses after working through blistering heat last year. They were among nearly 100 people across Oregon who died during last year’s heat wave as temperatures reached a record-breaking 116 degrees Fahrenheit (46.7 C) in Portland.

Gov. Kate Brown directed Oregon OSHA and the Oregon Health Authority to develop standards to protect employees from excessive heat and wildfire smoke in 2020 as part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

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