Essay | Deadly heat in Oregon stresses the need for worker protections
After less than two months in the United States, Sebastian Francisco Perez died from heat exhaustion while moving irrigation lines at Ernst Nursery and Farms in Oregon on June 26, 2021. Perez, a 38-year-old Guatemalan migrant who was raising money for his wife’s fertility treatment, began his nine to 10-hour day at work at 5 a.m. At around 3:30 p.m., as temperatures reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit, Perez’s coworkers noticed he was missing. He was found unresponsive after collapsing from heat exhaustion and dehydration in the field.
Ernst Nursery and Farms is located in Marion County, the largest agricultural-producing county in Oregon. The company had previously been cited by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 2014 for not providing its workers with water during a previous record-breaking heat wave, telling them they needed to bring enough water from home for a full day in the fields.
In the wake of Perez’s death, Ernst Nursery and Farms was fined $4,200 after an Oregon OSHA investigation found that the company had not properly trained all employees on how to protect themselves from the heat. According to The Oregonian, which obtained notes from an Oregon OSHA employee, the farm’s controller, Kim Stone, argued that the company employees working in the hot sun should use “common sense” and bear personal responsibility for “how they push their [bodies].”
Consequences of climate change
In June and early July 2021, Oregon experienced what was termed “the heat dome,” when temperatures topped 119 F in some parts of the state. At least 96 deaths were attributed to the 2021 summer heatwave. Two days after Perez’s death, on June 28, construction worker Dan Harris collapsed while fixing an irrigation leak in a roof. He later died at the hospital. Oregon OSHA listed his death as “heat stress” and ultimately fined Robinson Construction Co. $420. Such cases are expected to multiply as Oregon experiences ever-more extreme heat waves, increasing the vulnerability of manual laborers to the health consequences of working outdoors.
These days, 100-degree-plus temperatures in the Pacific Northwest are no longer unusual. A 2023 climate assessment from Oregon State University found that the number of days that are hotter than 90 F and nights that are warmer than 65 F are increasing across Oregon. In addition, the total annual area burned by wildfires in Oregon has increased during the last 35 years. Along with ruining homes and claiming lives, wildfires also choke the air with smoke that can have short- and long-term effects on those who breathe it in.
How can states protect workers?
In 2020, Oregon Governor Kate Brown directed the state’s OSHA and Oregon Health Authority to create rules to protect workers from extreme heat; but this process was delayed by the pandemic. This meant no excessive heat protections were in place during the sweltering 2021 heat dome. Perez’s death shined a harsh light on the lack of such protections.
At a vigil for Perez, The Oregon Farm Workers Union again demanded protections for workers forced to work outdoors during deadly summer heat waves. Finally, in late summer 2021, Oregon OSHA implemented a set of emergency protections for workers during extreme heat. On May 9, 2022, Oregon OSHA adopted permanent rules that officially made these protections state law.
These rules require employers to provide all workers in environments over 80 F with free, fresh water and mandatory shade breaks, as well as training on safety precautions to take during extreme heat, particularly how to recognize signs of heat exhaustion.
In doing so, Oregon implemented the most comprehensive heat protections for workers of any U.S. state. It is one of only five states to have any standard that protects workers from extreme heat.
For workers around the country, the risks are increasing. According to the National Climate Assessment, if current greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, high and low temperatures will increase by 5 F in most of the United States by mid-century, and there will be 20 to 30 more days of the year that surpass 90 F. Extreme heat has already caused over 600 deaths nationwide from 1999 to 2009, according to the Center For Climate and Energy Solutions.
Earlier this summer, the federal government acknowledged the risk with a statement from the White House. On July 27, President Joe Biden announced actions that directed the Department of Labor to issue a Hazard Alert which affirmed worker protections for heat related issues and outlined employer obligations to protect workers.
Federal OSHA has been developing federal heat-related standards since 2021, however there is as yet no federal standard for protecting workers from heat or wildfire smoke.