State issues emergency rules for people working in extreme heat

A jug of water hangs from a wire near where workers harvest Skeena cherries in an orchard near Naches on Friday.

OLYMPIA — Employers will need to provide shade and paid breaks to employees working outside during extreme heat under new emergency rules adopted by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries.

When temperatures are at or above 100 degrees, employers must provide shade or other means for employees to cool down, along with a paid cool-down rest period of at least 10 minutes every two hours, under the emergency rules. The change covers people working in agriculture, construction and under industries that are outside.

The emergency rules, combined with existing rules, require employers to do the following when temperatures are at or above 89 degrees: Provide water that is cool enough to drink safely, allow and encourage workers to take additional paid cool-down breaks to prevent overheating, have a written outdoor heat exposure safety program, provide training to employees, and respond appropriately to employees with symptoms of health-related illness.

The emergency rules, which go into effect Tuesday, update existing rules that are in place from May through September. Under those rules, employers must provide at least one quart of drinking water per hour, create an outdoor heat exposure safety program, provide training for employees, and respond to workers experiencing heat-related illness symptoms.

L&I will pursue permanent changes to the heat rules, which allows for public input.

Elizabeth Strater, strategic campaigns director with United Farm Workers, said she wonders why the temperature threshold prompting mandatory paid cool-down breaks is higher relative to other states. California requires such breaks when temperatures are higher than 95 degrees F.

“I’m curious where that 100 degrees came from, Strater said. “I look forward to the permanent rulemaking process.”

Dina Lorraine, an L&I spokeswoman, said the emergency rules were developed based on the petition from United Farm Workers, using California’s rules as a model.

“We will get further stakeholder input as we develop the permanent rule,” she said.

Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said he would have liked L&I to get more input prior to issuing the emergency rules and plans to participate in the permanent rulemaking process.

DeVaney said growers had measures in place to meet the existing rules and made adjustments to minimize workers’ time in extreme heat, such as having workers come in earlier in the day and encouraging workers to take breaks.

“Heat is a known hazard and our farmers were already taking steps to protect their workforce from it,” he said. “(The emergency rule) changes some of the specific requirements. In many cases, they were things our growers were already doing.”

Oregon also passed emergency rules regarding working in extreme heat. Under those rules, when the heat index is above 80, employers are required to provide access to sufficient shade and an adequate supply of drinking water. When the index is above 90 degrees, employers need to provide a means for workers and supervisors to report concerns, ensure employers are observed for signs of heat illness and provide a paid cool-down rest period of at least 10 minutes for every two hours of work.

The emergency rules come after a major heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest late last month, leading to record high temperatures. On Thursday, the state Department of Health reported that they identified 78 likely heat-related deaths, well above seven deaths in 2020 and 39 combined deaths during May to September from 2015 and 2020.