As Extreme Heat Kills Hundreds, Oregon Steps Up Push To Protect People
There are no federal worker protections from extreme heat even as climate change makes deadly heat waves more likely. Oregon has passed emergency rules and is educating the public on how to stay safe.
Andrew Morton had seen the weather forecast and decided to get ahead of the heat by switching up his schedule.
Morton works for a beverage and snack company in Wilsonville, Ore., and started coming in for his warehouse shifts late last month at midnight instead of his usual 4 a.m.. But it didn't seem to help much once the fierce heat dome landed over the Northwest, sending temperatures well into the triple digits.
"It is so humid and oppressively hot out here," he said in a recording of himself walking into work on the first hot night, getting sodas, candy and other snacks ready for delivery to vending machine locations. It felt like he was working in a sauna.
"When I came in, I'm like 'Wow, it's still pretty warm, I'm going to have to treat it as if it's the middle of the afternoon on a warm summer day,'" he said.
It's the kind of extreme heat that the warming climate is making more common, and that's forcing a reckoning in a region known for temperate summers, where many have never needed air conditioning. Since the late June heat wave left hundreds dead across the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Oregon has issued emergency safety rules for workers and stepped up its push for permanent protections, a process that had been delayed by the pandemic.
"I am concerned that our recent record-breaking heat wave in the Willamette Valley is a harbinger of what's to come," Governor Kate Brown said in a statement. "All Oregonians should be able to go to work knowing that conditions will be safe and that they will return home to their families at the end of the day."
The temporary rules will remain in effect 180 days, and Oregon aims to finalize the permanent ones in the fall. California passed the first heat stress standards more than a decade ago, but few states have followed suit. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no such federal heat protection standard.
Low income people and those of color live in hotter places
The wave of heat-related deaths laid bare the inequity of climate impacts.
"Places that were historically disinvested, or currently not really invested areas, are some of the hottest places in Portland," says Vivek Shandas, who studies cities and climate at Portland State University.
He set up thermometers around Portland and checked them during the extreme heat. He found a big disparity between more affluent, leafy neighborhoods — which registered about 98 degrees Fahrenheit — and others with more highways, parking lots and industrial plants, which soared as high as 124 degrees.
Shandas says materials like cinder block, brick, steel and concrete absorb more heat, and low income people and those of color tend to live in these hotter areas. The disparity is clear on a map of Multnomah County heat-related deaths.
Many who died in Multnomah County were older, with underlying health conditions. And many were found home alone, without air-conditioning or a fan.
"Nighttime is one of the most potent times where people die of heat exhaustion," Shandas says. Nights are actually warming even faster than days, and Shandas attributes much of the Portland area's high death count to that lack of overnight relief.
But the highest temperatures Shandas recorded were homeless encampments. "Those were about 135 degrees, and that is clearly enough to kill somebody if you're exposed to that," he says.
Shandas says there are solutions to help prevent future heat related deaths. For example, building codes that take heat into consideration. But he thinks that's not likely unless the Federal Emergency Management Agency starts to explicitly consider heatwaves a natural disaster just like tornadoes or hurricanes.
Farmworkers among the most vulnerable
Among those who died during the heat wave was a 38-year old farmworker who was moving irrigation lines on a day temperatures hit 105. At the time, Oregon had general guidelines for protecting workers from excessive heat.
The new, temporary emergency rules will expand those requirements for employers to provide shade, cool water and extra breaks when temperatures reach 90 degrees. Officials say they apply to both outdoor and indoor employees.
Kate Suisman, of the Northwest Workers Justice Project, worries the penalties for violations aren't strict enough. "You can have the greatest rules on paper and we're fighting for these strong protections, but if employers know that a penalty is a warning letter, what's that going to do?"
Even before the last heat wave, Berries Northwest blueberry farmer Anne Krahmer-Steinkamp was making sure her crew kept workers safe.
"We have water at all the tables and we're always telling them to drink their water. We allow them to take breaks whenever they want," she explained on a day of extreme heat. "They can also leave wherever they want."
She walked around with a handheld thermometer, sticking it into the soil to take the temperature. By 9 a.m., the reading already topped 90 degrees — so she called it quits and sent her crews off to get out of the heat. That puts her in a tough position as a business owner. Her unpicked berries are left to bake in the sun instead of being harvested and sold.
"I lost 60 acres," she said. "There's no way I can do fresh market quality."
German Facundo Palacios has worked at Berries Northwest in Albany for 12 years. He's the ranch manager and in charge of irrigation. He's never had to work through such an intense heat wave so early on in the season. Palacios welcomed new rules, but worried the protections won't go far enough.
Right now, the state gives no assurance that workers will be compensated for wages lost when excessive heat requires them to leave their job sites. Palacios said farmworkers don't have the financial cushion to give up paid work hours; with bills to pay and families to support, an unpaid day off is not an option.
"So many workers have families, and they don't want to stop working," he said.
Such a wage guarantee would fall to the Bureau of Labor and Industries to enforce. But Sonia Ramirez, its wage and hour chief, says there's no authority for that unless lawmakers pass legislation. In lieu of that, she says the bureau could enforce paid sick time, if employers allow workers to use that when it's deemed too hot to work safely.
Educating the public on climate change's health impacts
Wildfire smoke is another hazard Oregon aims to address. Last year, the air quality was so hazardous during September wildfires it was recording off-the-charts numbers west of the Cascades.
Wildfire smoke contains a mixture of gasses and from burning buildings, other materials, and forests. Wildfire smoke particles, or PM 2.5, are thirty times smaller than human hair and if inhaled can cause serious health impacts for people with preexisting health conditions like asthma and heart disease.
Officials are working to educate people on the various health effects of the warming climate, as wildfires become more frequent and intense, and summers get hotter and drier.
"The first step is, of course, prevention," says Richard Leman, chief medical officer with the Oregon Health Authority.
In late June, more than 800 people went to the emergency room for heat related illnesses. Leman says too many don't recognize the symptoms of heat stress, like confusion, slurred speech, seizures and loss of consciousness. They may not realize that exercising in extreme heat, or staying outside too long, can lead to heat exhaustion.
He says the fact that so many people died at home alone speaks to another change that's needed. "There's the old saying, 'It takes a village,' and we often think of that as far as raising a child," he says. "But.. we've got to keep an eye out for folks in our community."
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