Laws protecting workers from heat and smoke will not be overturned, judge rules

A lawsuit attempting to block enforcement of new worker protections in extreme heat and smoke events has been dismissed by a federal court.

The heat and smoke rules require employers to provide respirator masks in exceptionally smoky conditions and water and shade breaks in high heat. The rules were developed by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, or Oregon OSHA, following a 2020 executive order from Gov. Kate Brown. Oregon OSHA is also in charge of enforcing the rules. 

Soon after the heat rules went into effect this summer, three industry groups — the Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, Associated Oregon Loggers, Inc. and the Oregon Forest Industries Council — challenged OSHA’s authority to enforce them.

In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Medford, the groups said the heat and smoke rules were both too restrictive and not specific enough to each industry, claiming some rules for protecting farmers don’t make sense to apply to loggers. 

Because of this, they argued, the rules would be too difficult for Oregon OSHA to enforce and that they violated employers’ 14th amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Workers rights’ and environmental justice groups argued the rules are necessary to keep people safe.

During the 2020 Labor Day weekend wildfires, many farmworkers harvested crops while breathing unhealthy levels of smoke, and in 2021, extreme heat led to the death of an Oregon farmworker. 

At the hearing Tuesday, Dec. 20, Judge Mark Clarke dismissed the industry groups’ claims that the rules were unconstitutional because they were too vague to enforce.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.