Farmworker dies in Marion County amid historic heat wave

An irrigation system in an agricultural field in Marion County on Friday, March 12, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A Woodburn labor contractor and St. Paul nursery are under state investigation after a farmworker died following a Saturday shift in the midst of a heat wave.

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported the death on its website, listing the preliminary incident description as “heat.” Temperatures in St. Paul reached 104 degrees on Saturday.

OSHA spokesman Aaron Corvin said the agency is investigating Woodburn-based Brother Farm Labor Contractor and Ernst Nursery and Farms in St. Paul in connection with the death.

The nursery did not immediately return a call seeking comment. A man who answered the number listed for the contractor in a state database declined to comment Tuesday afternoon.

Corvin said that based on the report the agency received, “the employee was working on a crew moving irrigation lines. At the end of the shift he was found unresponsive in the field.”

St. Paul Fire Chief Bryan Lee said the agency received an emergency call about an unconscious man not breathing at 3:37 p.m. Crews responded to the field, performed CPR and attempted to revive the man for about 35 minutes, then transported him to Providence Newberg Hospital, Lee said.

State OSHA rules require employers to protect workers from excessive heat. The agency strongly recommends heavy outdoor labor stop in temperatures above 95 degrees, Corvin said.

But Oregon does not have rules in place mandating work cease at high temperatures. Such rules are under consideration.

As the Salem area braced for record heat over the weekend, Oregon’s farmworker union, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, reported organizers were fielding more calls from workers concerned about laboring in triple-digit temperatures.

Corvin said workplace fatality investigations typically take three to four months. The results are public once the investigation is completed.

The state’s database lists three other workplace deaths tied to heat going back to 2000, none involving agricultural workers. The most recent was the heat stress-related death of a construction worker on July 20, 2020 in Milwaukie.

A database of Oregon OSHA complaints going back to March 2020 did not include any records of complaints against or violations committed by either Brother Farm Labor Contractor or Ernst Nursery and Farms.

Jake Thomas contributed reporting.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.