While we were all contending with record snow and rainfall this spring, two new permanent rules were adopted in Oregon to protect workers from smoke and heat-related illnesses.

The rules developed by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division will have major impacts on businesses. They will affect a wide range of activities, including construction, outdoor events, agriculture, recreation, and even restaurants with outdoor seating.

The agency has adopted two new rules governing employers and placed mandatory requirements to protect employees. These rules will require significant changes to operations. If you are an employer, now is the time to start preparing. 

The agency’s heat rule impacts workplaces if cooling systems cannot keep the heat below 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or if workers are outside. It requires employers to provide worker access to shade and more frequent breaks, in addition to a heat illness prevention plan. Employers will also need to provide at least 32 ounces of drinking water or electrolyte-replenishing drinks per hour for every employee. 

Next, employees will need to receive training on the effects of heat on people. This will include understanding heat exposure risk factors, how to comply with new heat rules, how to identify and report symptoms of heat-related illness and how to access and administer first aid.

When the heat index exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit, more regulations are in play. Employers must develop and implement a plan to ensure employees are monitoring each other and communicating when and how heat and smoke protocols need to be acted upon. Cool down rest breaks and cooling vests are also among the requirements when the temperature goes up.

Smoke rules in effect, too

Similarly, the wildfire smoke rule impacts both outdoor and indoor workplaces if the air quality index (AQI) levels go above 100. The rule requires employers to develop annual training for all employees, including how to access and operate smoke filtration devices, such as respirator masks.

Additionally, employers are required to provide communication plans for worksite air quality and access to respiratory protection for all workers at various AQI levels, starting at 101 AQI. Masks become mandatory when the AQI is 251 or higher.

Employers will be required to monitor AQI, communicate with their employees and potentially relocate them, change work schedules or close down operations to reduce exposure to smoke.

The new heat rules took effect June 15, and wildfire rules began July 1. Both rules are the most protective of their kind in the country, OSHA officials said in a recent press release, and reflect the need to strengthen protections in the workplace while “focusing on the needs of Oregon’s most vulnerable communities.”

While it is extremely important that Oregon OSHA develop regulations to protect workers, especially those vulnerable to serious illness, the new rules are inflexible and provide little room for interpretation across the wide range of industries in our state.

Take, for example, a restaurant with a commercial kitchen that regularly reaches high temperatures despite an indoor cooling system. The new rules will make it extremely difficult to maintain these conditions for cook staff. Also, many restaurants have moved to outdoor seating since COVID, where temperatures will impact their operations.

There are both full and partial exemptions to these rules. Employers are fully exempt from incidental heat exposures if they have a mechanical ventilation system that keeps the heat index below 80 degrees. There are other exemptions for light workloads or associated support activities for wildland firefighters, and employees who work from home.

While a significant reason for outdoor heat and smoke rules is in response to agricultural workers, other industries whose business is outside are included. The rules may add significant challenges to many businesses who are still struggling from past wildfire seasons, labor shortages and COVID.

The outdoor recreation industry, one of the most active during the summer, will be under these new rules, including for activities like guided hikes and tours and rafting trips. While heat and smoke protocols are necessary and important, many of these workplaces need some flexibility to interpret the rules and put together a tailored approach to keep their employees safe.

We are all concerned about worker safety and protecting them from heat and smoke. But the new OSHA rules are at times akin to using a jackhammer to drive in a push-pin. Workplaces are much more diverse and should be allowed some flexibility without sacrificing safety. While debate may linger, businesses must be prepared to follow these new rules this summer.