YAKIMA, WA - Our last historical heat wave brought devastating losses, one of them in Yakima. Florencio Gueta Vargas, farm worker and father of 6, died of heatstroke while working on Virgil Gamache Farms.
The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries filed these updated regulations July 9th, serving as an emergent addition to the Outdoor Heat Exposure laws filed in 2008.
“The recent heat wave is a reminder that extreme temperatures can be a real danger in the workplace. With more hot weather on the way, we’re taking action now,” said L&I Director Joel Sacks. "The emergency rule clarifies existing requirements and outlines commonsense steps employers must take to keep the workers who are responsible for growing our food, paving our roads, and putting up our buildings safe on the job.”
The United Farm Workers Union also played a vital role in pushing Governor Inslee to pass emergency laws applying to this heat wave.
"We sent two petitions to Governor Inslee and both of them were accepted." said Zaira Sanchez, Emergency Relief Coordinator for UFW Foundation.
In a press release from the WA Labor and Industries, Governor Inslee said" The heat experienced in our state this year has reached catastrophic levels. The physical risk to individuals is significant, in particular those whose occupations have them outdoors all day,” said Gov. Jay Inslee. “Our state has rules in place to ensure these risks are mitigated, however, the real impacts of climate change have changed conditions since those rules were first written and we are responding.”
For that question "Do you believe the heat regulations need to be improved, 96% agreed they need to be improved." said Sanchez
When the temperature is at or above 100 degrees, employers must do the following:
Providing shade or another way for employees to cool down; and
- Ensuring workers have a paid cool-down rest period of at least 10 minutes every two hours.
- "Not all farm workers work hourly wage. Many work by the pound and not by hour. Which means a lot of them don't want to take a break because it literally makes them lose money." said Elizabeth Strater from the United Farm Workers Union. These regulations hope to enforce that.
When temperatures are at or above 89 degrees, the new rules combined with existing rules make employees:
- Provide water that is cool enough to drink safely;
- Allow and encourage workers to take additional paid preventative cool-down rest to protect from overheating;
- Be prepared by having a written outdoor heat exposure safety program and providing training to employees;
- Respond well-equipped to any employee with symptoms of heat-related illness.
The heat regulations last until September.
In Oregon, these heat regulations are similar. Except employers need to have a medical emergency plan in place. Oregon is also working on making this a year-round law.
But this law doesn't only apply to farm workers but also construction workers, gardeners, and any workers who do outdoor activities.
If any farm worker has a complaint about their job environment, please call the UFW at 1-877-881-8281.
For any employers who want more resources on how to plan for the heat, click this safety document from L&I.
The new rules which last until September include agricultural workers, construction workers, and anyone who works outside. A permanent law is in the process of being made in Oregon.
Strater said Yakima farm worker Gueta Vargas's death could have been avoided. In a Twitter post by the UFW, they document the sublimate created by hops harvesting in Yakima, causing even more dangerous working conditions. "Hops workers face an increased risk from heat stress due to the unique conditions in the rows. The towering vines are vertical, oriented to allow sun down to the ground, and the rows stifle any breeze. Significant humidity released by hops makes it like stepping into a sauna."
Some farm workers have experienced heat-illnesses severely, one to the point of death like Sebastian Francisco Perez in St. Paul Oregon. But these new heat regulations are hoping to change that.
"Farm workers work one of the poorest professions in the country. They work through their heat fatigue in order to make ends meet and it is not right. Their lives matter." said Strater.