Judge Supports Oregon Laws Shielding Employees From Heat and Smoke From Wildfires

Judge Supports Oregon Laws: A lawsuit challenging Oregon’s policies meant to protect employees from high heat and wildfire smoke has been rejected by a federal court. Last Monday, Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, Associated Oregon Loggers, Inc., and the Oregon Forest Industries Council had their case rejected by U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke. The case was dismissed without further action being permitted.

Judge Supports Oregon Laws Shielding Employees From Heat and Smoke From Wildfires

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division published regulations in May outlining what must be done by companies when temperature or air quality exceeds a specific point. The smoke regulations from wildfires were effective on July 1, while the heat regulations went into force on June 15.

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Businesses in Oregon, numbering in the thousands, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new heat limits on the day they took effect. To prevent the state from enforcing the new regulations, they filed for an injunction. Several groups complained that the state agency in charge of workplace safety had exceeded its legislative jurisdiction by adopting the new laws and that several clauses of the regulations were too nebulous to be applied properly.

Judge Supports Oregon Laws Shielding Employees From Heat and Smoke From Wildfires
Judge Supports Oregon Laws Shielding Employees From Heat and Smoke From Wildfires

In September, attorneys for Oregon OSHA filed a motion to dismiss the suit, in which they argued that the business groups’ claim that the rules were too vague should be rejected and that the lawsuit should be dismissed on the basis of sovereign immunity, which prevents state agencies from being sued in federal court without the consent of the state.

The lawyers argued, “Common sense (and the experience of Oregonians who have lived through recent wildfire seasons) confirms that employers of reasonable intelligence have ample means to make a determination as to whether wildfire smoke is impacting air quality, often through their own observations and senses.”

Oregon OSHA was found to be entitled to sovereign immunity as a state agency, and the court agreed with the agency, ruling that the business organizations had failed to prove that “the standards are ambiguous in all circumstances.”

Shade, water, and increasingly regular rest breaks increase in frequency as the temperature rises, under Oregon OSHA’s heat guidelines. Employers are also obligated to create heat avoidance strategies, provide employees and supervisors with heat illness training, and guarantee that workers are given adequate time to acclimatize to hot conditions and are closely monitored over the course of their shifts.

Employers are obligated to educate their staff on the risks posed by wildfire smoke, give them with access to respirators when the air quality drops below a safe threshold, and mandate their use when the Air Quality Index rises beyond 251, which is considered “extremely unhealthy.” When air quality is poor, the government suggests that businesses look elsewhere for new locations.

As early as March 2020, Governor Kate Brown requested that Oregon OSHA and the Oregon Health Authority create regulations to shield workers from the effects of extreme heat and wildfire smoke. This directive was issued as part of a larger executive order that required specific state agencies to take action to curb emissions of greenhouse gases and lessen the effects of global warming.

After employees across the state were exposed to tough working conditions during the exceptional heat in June 2021 and the wildfires in September 2020, Oregon brought out temporary emergency restrictions to shield them from the heat and smoke in 2021, before enacting the permanent standards this year.

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Both farmhand Sebastian Francisco Perez and construction worker Dan Harris succumbed to a heat stroke in June of 2021. They were among the almost one hundred persons who perished in Oregon during the state-wide heat wave that month of June 2021, when temperatures hit 116 in Portland and considerably higher elsewhere.

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