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Oregon OSHA to enact emergency rules for heat following Marion County farmworker death

An irrigation system in an agricultural field off of 76th Avenue Northeast on Friday, March 12, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Following the death of a farmworker in St. Paul during the heat wave last week, Gov. Kate Brown is directing the state agency in charge of worker safety to enact emergency rules to protect farmworkers from extreme heat.

Oregon Occupational Safety and Health will create temporary rules that expand requirements for employers to provide shade, rest time and cool water for workers during high and extreme heat events.  

Leah Andrews, OSHA spokesperson, said they expect to have the rules by the end of the week. It’s unclear whether those rules would require employers to stop work above particular temperatures.

Activists have been pushing for stronger protections for years. OSHA and the Oregon Health Authority were initially supposed to submit a proposal for workplace rules by June that would protect employees from excessive heat and wildfire smoke following a directive from Brown.  

But the state extended the deadline for those rules until September because of the pandemic.

Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Oregon’s farmworker union, said she was devastated by the news of the farmworker’s death.  

Sebastian Francisco Perez, 38, died while working at Ernst Nursery and Farms in St. Paul as temperatures reached 104 degrees on June 26.

He was working on a crew moving irrigation lines where he was found unresponsive.

 One of his coworkers told the New York Times Perez worked that day because he was stressed about repaying his debt to coyotes who help guide migrants across the border illegally.

Lopez said his death it highlighted the need for emergency rules.  

“This is the first recorded death in OSHA’s fatalities report in farm labor due to extreme heat. It’s shameful that it happened as calls for emergency action from PCUN and our partners were met with significant resistance by our state agency. This happened on the watch of these employers as well, our message to them is do better,” Lopez said in a prepared statement released June 30. 

PCUN said climate change has a significant impact on farmworkers who endure extreme weather conditions to make a paycheck.  

OHSA strongly recommends that heavy outdoor labor stop in temperatures above 95 degrees, Aaron Corvin, OHSA spokesman, told Salem Reporter last week.

But Oregon doesn’t currently have rules in place mandating that work stop at high temperatures.  

At least 13 people in Marion County died as a result of the heat wave, according to numbers from the state Medical Examiner. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] 

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