Emergency heat and wildfire regulations
The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has adopted new emergency rules that will be in effect each year May through September to protect workers in agriculture, construction and other outside jobs from exposure to extreme heat. New wildfire smoke regulations will remain in effect for the rest of the fire season.
The new heat exposure rules took effect July 13. When temperatures reach 100 degrees or above, which is described as extreme heat, employers must provide adequate shade and paid breaks of at least 10 minutes every two hours to employees working outside.
On hot weather days, when temperatures reach 89 degrees or above, employeres must be encouraged to take additional paid breaks, and employers must provide water cool enough to drink safely. Employers must also educate supervisors and employees about the symptoms of outdoor heat exposure and any written policies in place.
These measures are targeted to protect workers and vulnerable populations from overheating, such as migrant workers who might feel compelled to work during unsafe weather conditions.
These emergency orders come after a deadly heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest in late June. On July 19, the Washington Department of Health identified 112 deaths during the state’s June heat wave for which heat played a leading factor. In 2020 from mid-June to the end of August, there were seven heat-related deaths in Washington. The majority of the deaths this year were in King and Pierce counties.
Wildfire smoke rules
Not only has Washington experienced hotter-than-usual weather earlier in the year compared to years past, but so far in 2021, more than 600 wildfires have also been reported — double the normal rate, according to an L&I press release. The L&I department implemented an emergency rule on July 16 in an effort to protect workers from wildfire smoke. Employers are required to provide smoke-filtering masks to employees working outside when air quality reaches a threshold that is deemed unhealthy for the public to breathe.
The rule sets the standard for dangerously poor air quality at an Air Quality Index rating of 151. Under the new regulations, employers must monitor the levels of fine particulate matter in the air, which can be dangerous to breathe over long periods at high levels.
Atop these requirements, employers must also train employees and supervisors about wildfire smoke, ensure employees receive medical care if they show symptoms of smoke exposure and reduce exposure to smoke by providing N-95 respirators or moving workers indoors when levels are unsafe.
Washington is the second state to issue regulations regarding workers and wildfire smoke. California was the first, adopting its rules in 2019.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the July 21-27, 2021 issue.