Oregon Aglink Blog

Heat Safety Evolving in Oregon

Posted on July 25, 2023

With hot weather already arriving in some parts of Oregon in May, farms and ranches should keep in mind that Summer 2023 is the first season that worksites will see broad enforcement of the new heat rules implemented by Oregon OSHA (OR-OSHA) last year. 

The rules released in 2022 in response to the heat dome event of 2021 have now had a full year for agents and operations to assess what is working and how to best keep employees safe during hot weather.

Additionally, OR-OSHA has expressed their intention to include assessments of heat safety programs in their field sanitation inspections, which bypass the small farm exemptions. Long story short: anybody who thinks they’re protected from having their heat program inspected due to that exemption still needs to be ready.

Even before the new rules were in place, many operations were already taking precautions like added hydration and cooling breaks during extremely hot or humid weather.

In some cases, though, the written rules have introduced complicated steps of assigned breaks, acclimatization schedules, and repetitive notifications. Eric Lloyd from Oregon Risk Management Solutions reached out to OR-OSHA after last summer to get clarity on the rules and how agents would be applying them. Based on the response from OR-OSHA, here are the main take-aways:

  • Breaks: The complex break schedule crafted by OR-OSHA weighed strenuousness of tasks, a sliding scale temperature index, and personal break requirements. One way to simplify this would be to simply assume everyone is doing extremely strenuous work and assign them to the highest break period intervals for that temperature (e.g. at 100 degrees, 40 minutes of break per hour). Alternatively, farms can create their own simplified break period system as long as it goes above and beyond the suggested structures. If workers are empowered by supervisors to take breaks as needed– and they are reliably taking those breaks during high temperatures– then they are likely operating within the “as needed” provision by OR-OSHA.
  • Acclimatization (Part 1): When OR-OSHA attempted to standardize a system for acclimatizing workers to high heat, they cited the CDC-recommended rolling schedule of 20/40/60/80 percent normal workloads spread over several days so that workers could build up their tolerance, but OR-OSHA also recognized that this wouldn’t work for every business. The challenge of keeping track of larger crews, especially if some of them are coming in while others are two or three days into the program, may not always be feasible. Via Lloyd, “the acclimatization program is a great goal” and ultimately it’s more important to work with a good plan than produce a complex tracking document. Citing OR-OSHA consultants, he adds “if or when it isn’t entirely feasible to follow it and still meet production needs, we can use alternate cooling mechanisms in place of picture-perfect acclimation.” Alternative cooling methods might include the addition of misters, swamp coolers, evaporative neck cloths, or even special ice-packed cooling vests.
  • Acclimatization (Part 2): The fact that many seasonal farm workers in Oregon come from fields and orchards in much hotter California weather can further complicate acclimatization plans and crews arriving on different days. If a supervisor could reasonably assume that they’re coming from work in conditions with similar or even higher heat than the current site in Oregon, and if they could articulate that to an OR-OSHA agent, then farms could potentially consider them to already be acclimated and not need the full step-up plan.
  • Notifications: like the need for complex written plans or documentation, the frequent notifications that supervisors were supposed to send to crews every time the temperature passed a certain threshold seemed excessive, sometimes even patronizing to the people already working in the heat. Rather than texting people multiple times a day, supervisors can send a morning text with a summary of the expected temperature changes during the day, e.g. “80^ by 10am, 95^ by 12pm” and updates if the heat index rises unexpectedly.

Should farmers plan to disregard all the new heat rules and requirements if it seems like OR-OSHA might have a hard time enforcing them as written? Of course not!

In addition to finding the right balance between safety and compliance on your operation, you can talk with your teams about heat provisions as a set of tools instead of rules. The goal is not just dodging fines like a farm version of the Dukes of Hazzard. The goal is to keep people safe while they get the job done. With that in mind, can a heat plan become a tool for your operation? If your workers recognize the earlier stages of heat illnesses and their personal risks, they can be more proactive about taking the breaks that keep worse effects at bay. If your farm invests in new ways to get cool water and shade to workers, their ability to complete the work and come back the next day is increased.

Whether or not an agent from OSHA visits your farm to read over your written plan, the heat is coming this summer. Your operation benefits from a written plan and cohesive teams that know where they can get the water and find shade or first aid when they need it.

For more information on heat safety resources, visit aglink.org/resources.

By Allison Cloo with Eric Lloyd