It’s no fluke that advertisements often show someone working on a farm or ranch when they want an example of working hard and pushing through discomfort.
That iconic image of wiping sweat from your brow or taking a drink of water on a hot day is familiar and easily understood.
That expectation of “we already know how to handle this” can make it difficult to talk about new rules about heat and smoke from a regulatory body like Oregon OSHA. Heat and physical stress are part of the job just like the need to push until it’s finished at harvest time. The death of farm worker Sebsatian Francisco Perez during the 2021 heat wave in Oregon brought extra scrutiny to the safeguards against heat-related illness for workers as well as a renewed conversation about safety and compliance.
Even before OSHA introduces a rule, many farms have already adopted safety practices. On the flipside, precise compliance with rules may not provide full safety if operations can’t also apply common sense to the fluid situations that arise in agriculture.
Reckoning With Three Realities
1. Like wildfire smoke, extreme heat happens.
It did in the summer of 2021 when the “heat dome” event led to over a hundred heat-related deaths around the state of Oregon and the state adopted temporary rules for workplaces operating during extreme heat or the other increasingly familiar condition of wildfire smoke leading to poor air quality. Whether it’s this year or next, farms and ranches in Oregon will face these conditions again.
2. We need to check in on ourselves and each other.
A person’s ability to handle that heat or smoke can vary over time depending on their personal health, age, conditions such as pregnancy, consumption of water, and whether they have been acclimatized to heat recently. That means the person who was fine last year or last week might need to check in on themselves, or have others remind them to drink water, if they are showing any signs of heat stress.
3. The new rules are in place, with the heat rules taking effect June 15 and the smoke rules taking effect July 1.
At this point, agricultural operations are best served by figuring out on their own or coordinating to figure out how to meet the benchmarks– many of them are already–and whether they can share with other farms and ranches their solutions for things like providing enough shade, cool water, and rest periods.
Making Sense of New Rules
The good news is that the long form of the rules originally released by OSHA for legal purposes are appearing in their shortened and more readily useful form (check the Oregon Aglink website or OSHA for digital copies). To summarize them even further, the rules break down into the resources that need to be on hand (shade and water, for example) and the communication about those resources, any change in work routines, and the risks and signs of heat illness.
It is true that every employee is then responsible for taking advantage of the breaks, shade, and water provided at a given worksite, as well as communicating any signs of illness they may be experiencing before a full-blown crisis. The idea of a safety culture at a farm, however, can make that easier when employees can encourage each other to take that water break or they know a supervisor will make accommodations if someone needs them
Perhaps an even bigger picture to consider is the idea of a safety culture within an entire industry. With many farms already meeting or exceeding these standards but all farms affected by new regulations and potential penalties, there is an opportunity to get ahead of the next tragedy and the resulting top-down rules.
The safety solutions at your own farm could be new information for the farm down the road or the next county over. Someone else could have an easy fix for the thing that would earn you a fine at your next inspection. Peer-to-peer discussions are a grassroots way to shift safety practices in an industry rather than waiting for them to arrive via regulation.
For More Safety Resources, including copies of the new heat and smoke rules, click on the “Resources” tab at aglink.org or contact Allison Cloo at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach Eric Lloyd and his Oregon Risk Management Solutions team at info@OregonRMS.com.