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Washington State adds emergency rules to protect workers from heat and wildfire smoke

The monster heat wave that struck the Pacific Northwest this year from June 26 to July 2 killed 95 people in Washington State alone. In May and June, 3,504 people visited emergency rooms across the region for heat-related illnesses.

Wildfire seasons in the western United States have grown longer and more severe in recent decades, compounding the public health threat by exposing millions to toxic air pollutants in wildfire smoke. Washington is currently under a state of emergency, with 600 wildfires reported so far this year, which is double the normal rate according to Lora Shinn

Researchers have found that Washington’s farmworkers are especially vulnerable to extreme heat and to fine particulate matter, one of the deadliest air pollutants. The problems are compounded by their disproportionate exposure to toxic pesticides, which leads to chronic headaches, nausea, asthma, and other breathing difficulties. Despite the risks, the workers often have no choice but to show up to their jobs. Living paycheck to paycheck, workers "want their hours and don't want to lose an opportunity to work," says Zaira Sanchez, the emergency relief coordinator for the United Farm Workers (UFW) Foundation, a nonprofit mobilizing farmworkers nationwide to advocate for better job protections. "But they're pushing themselves beyond their bodies’ limits to make as much as they can to bring home."

A new state rule
In July, Washington State's Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) issued emergency heat and smoke rules to increase protection for outdoor workers, making it the second state to institute a smoke rule (California became the first in 2019). The new heat stress rule—which California and Oregon also have in place—is an add-on to a heat rule that went into effect in 2008 and asks employers to provide shade and 10-minute paid cooldown breaks every two hours when temperatures reach 100 or above. Temperatures of 89 or above trigger the requirement for cool drinking water and some amount of paid cooldown time. The emergency heat rules are in effect through September 30 and reflect the need for urgent new policies to protect the state’s workers in light of accelerating climate change.

"In 2008, no one was thinking about temperatures above 110 degrees," says Dina Lorraine, who works as a communications consultant for L&I.

Washington’s new smoke-related emergency rule states that once high levels of particulate matter are detected in the air, employers must take steps to reduce their workers’ exposure to the pollution, such as through providing free N95 masks, reducing physical labor intensity, and increasing rest time or work time in an area with filtered air.

“The long-term health impacts from heat and smoke are extremely concerning," Sanchez says. But by necessity, farmworkers are often more focused on the present day. “Even if it's not good for their health now, they have to provide for today." Those who are paid based on productivity versus on an hourly basis may also push themselves to work harder and faster and take fewer breaks. 

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