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Oregon adopts emergency rules to protect workers from smoke

File photo -- Wildfire smoke settles in the Rogue Valley.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon has adopted emergency rules meant to protect workers from wildfire smoke and shield workers living in labor housing from extreme heat.

The rules will go into effect on Aug. 9 for six months, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health administration is working on adopting permanent rules this fall to protect workers from wildfire smoke and extreme heat. The agency is also working on permanent standards to protect workers in labor housing.

The new rules require that employers make an effort, whenever feasible, to change work schedules or relocate work when air quality levels reach 201, which is considered very unhealthy. If employees will be exposed to air quality levels above 201, employers must ensure that workers wear N95 respirators. For this year, employers can substitute those respirators with KN95 masks as long as air quality levels are below 499. The air quality index doesn’t track levels above 500.

Employers must also maintain an adequate supply of respirators when air quality levels exceed 101, which is considered unhealthy to sensitive groups. Employers must also develop a communication system to alert workers to air quality hazards and train workers who may be exposed to unhealthy air on the health risks of wildfire smoke and emergency procedures to protect workers. Those trainings must take place before Aug. 16.

Unprecedented wildfires across Oregon last September showed that Oregon’s workplace regulations didn’t specify how employers should respond to extremely poor air quality. Many workers remained on the job with limited protection last year as air quality reached hazardous levels.

On Monday, Oregon OSHA also announced that it is adopting rules requiring employers to provide cooling areas for workers living in labor housing when outside temperatures reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) and temperatures below 78 degrees cannot be maintained inside labor housing units.

Employers will also be required to block windows to keep housing units cool and offer fans at no cost when temperatures inside the housing units exceed 78 F (25 C).

The new rules come a month after the state adopted emergency rules to protect workers from extreme heat.

At least two Oregon workers died of suspected heat-related illnesses after working through a record-breaking June heatwave. The state is still investigating the deaths of two other Oregon workers who died during the heat wave as possibly heat-related. The state didn’t have rules in place during the heat wave specifically requiring employers to provide sufficient cool water, shaded areas with room to sit or extended breaks.

Gov. Kate Brown directed Oregon OSHA and the Oregon Health Authority to develop a proposal for standards to protect employees from excessive heat and wildfire smoke in March 2020. It was part of a broader executive order mandating that certain state agencies engage in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change.