Unions Are Protecting Workers From Hazardous Heat in the Pacific Northwest

Meteorologist Tyler Kranz says the new heatwave descending on the Pacific Northwest would break all-time temperature records, if it weren’t for the even more extreme “heat dome” event we endured at the end of June. In Oregon, that explosion of regional heat took the lives of at least two workers and generated over 100 complaints about unsafe working conditions due to heat. On July 29, Gueta Vargas died while working at a hops farm in Central Washington with heat a contributing factor in his death, according to the Yakima County Coroner.

Of the two confirmed heat-related deaths in Oregon, one was Sebastian Francisco Pereza, a farmworker moving irrigation lines in St. Paul, Oregon’s 104-degree heat. The other was a Hillsboro construction worker who collapsed, and later died, after conducting a roof inspection. Two other potentially heat-related deaths that are being investigated are that of a Klamath Falls dairy worker and a Hermiston Walmart warehouse worker. 

In the face of new workplace hazards, it is once again labor unions that are leading the charge on protecting workers from unsafe conditions. The United Farm Workers (UFW) union called the June 2021 deaths “entirely preventable” and demanded that Govs. Jay Inslee and Kate Brown protect farmworkers with emergency heat standards, calling heat protections for workers “a matter of life and death.”

Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN, an Oregon-based farmworker union explained further, “The essential worker term is just lip service; that’s not how we’re being treated by this economy or the people who benefit from food coming from workers in this country. It’s important that we have really strong standards that are equitable across the state, reach every corner, and keep all of our workers safe.”

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21 is educating all of their members on their right to stay safe in extreme heat, with bi-lingual charts about heat-related illness and how to report an employer who is not following the law. Labor unions like UFCW 21 recognize that this is a crisis that is not going away: “This kind of extreme weather is dangerous in our workplaces and our communities, which is why UFCW 21 members work for climate policies that will help protect us and our future health.”

Washington and Oregon’s governments have responded to pressure from the state’s respective labor unions, putting emergency heat safety mandates into place. Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries ruled that when temperatures are at or above 100 degrees, employers must provide shade or other sufficient means for employees to cool down and ensure workers have a paid cool-down rest period of at least ten minutes every two hours.  

Oregon OSHA adopted an emergency rule that strengthens requirements for employers to protect workers from the dangers of high and extreme heat by expanding access to shade and cool water. They also include regular cool-down breaks, training, communication, emergency planning, and other measures. And the agency has pledged to “aggressively enforce” the new rules to protect workers.

Hazardous temperatures are a workplace safety issue. Thousands of people continue to work outdoors and on the front lines to keep our society functioning, regardless of the heat. But these farmworkers, letter carriers, firefighters, construction workers, sanitation workers and others are often unable to escape to air conditioning or shade. Once again, the people we refer to as “frontline” and “essential” workers are bearing the brunt of a crisis, and they must be protected. Labor unions are leading the charge on pushing all levels of government to implement those protections.