MOUNT VERNON, Washington — Amid this summer’s historic heat wave, the state has updated rules requiring more precautions for workers exposed to hot weather, such as those in agriculture and construction.
The state’s new emergency rules, which went into effect Tuesday, require employers to take additional steps to protect workers from becoming overheated — a health hazard that can result in serious medical consequences, including death.
Several Skagit County employers say they already had safety protocols in place for workers during hot weather, though a local farmworker union says the state’s new rules don’t go far enough.
When temperatures reach 100 degrees or more, employers must provide shade or another way for workers to cool off, and ensure workers take paid cool-down rest periods of at least 10 minutes every two hours, according to the emergency rules released by the state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) on July 9.
At 89 degrees, employers must encourage workers to take cool-down rest periods to prevent becoming overheated, the rules say. Cool drinking water must be provided.
The new protections add to the state’s existing rules, in place seasonally May through September, to protect employees from extreme heat. Washington is one of only three states in the nation to have such rules, according to L&I.
The state already required employers to train employees on the signs of heat-related illnesses, to respond to symptoms, and provide employees with at least one quart of drinking water per hour. The emergency protections now specify that drinking water should be cool.
Ralph’s Greenhouse, an organic vegetable farm southwest of Mount Vernon, already provides workers with regularly scheduled breaks every two hours, and conducts training each season on recognizing heat-related illnesses, said owner Ray de Vries.
During the recent heat wave, Ralph’s Greenhouse had workers start earlier in the day, work shorter days, and provided them with plenty of water, he said.
“You’ve got to take care of your people, that’s the most valuable resource on any farm,” de Vries said.
The heat wave that slammed much of West Coast in late June brought record-setting, triple-digit temperatures to parts of Skagit County.
Many farmworkers who work in the Skagit Valley year-round are not accustomed to that kind of heat, said Edgar Franks, political director of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the independent farmworker union representing farmworkers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Skagit County.
“It surprised a lot of people how the weather came to be so extreme,” he said.
Franks said local farmworkers reported headaches, nose bleeds and even passing out during the heat wave. He said those workers went to get checked out, drank liquids, and felt better.
Franks said the state could do more to protect workers. He said the issue is that the new protections don’t go into effect until it reaches 100 degrees.
“Workers have been telling us it could be 80 degrees and it’s still really hot especially if you’re doing piece-rate work,” he said. “You’re getting paid on production, how many pounds you pick and how much you work.”
Franks said as climate change causes more frequent hot weather, the state should enact more protections for workers.
“The positive side is the (state’s) acknowledgement that it’s dangerous to work in these conditions,” he said.
When temperatures neared 100 degrees during the recent heat wave, Chad Fisher Construction, based west of Burlington, shut down most of its work sites for the day, said owner Dan Fisher.
“It’s just too hot to work safely,” he said.
Fisher said the company held a regular seasonal training on recognizing heat stroke and heat exhaustion, and a brush-up session in advance of the heat wave.
He said most construction sites have coolers or refrigerators to provide employees with cool drinks.
“We take a very proactive stance in safety and ensuring our people are taken care of,” he said.
On Wednesday, L&I issued a hazard alert on heat stress, reinforcing the new emergency rules. The alert reminds workers to watch for symptoms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion. More information can be found at L&I’s Be Heat Smart webpage.