The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:
For many of us, last summer’s sweltering weather had us dreaming of air conditioning and scrambling to find comfort in the shade. For Washingtonians whose jobs are performed outdoors — and on whose work we depend for basic needs including food and shelter — there are few places to hide from the heat.
Ensuring those workers are protected falls to the state Department of Labor & Industries, which recently released emergency outdoor heat exposure and wildfire smoke rules. The latest measures are a welcome improvement over last year’s guidelines and point to what developing federal heat protections may look like.
L&I must continue its discussions with farmers and other employers and labor advocates to adequately balance work demands and safety as the agency prepares permanent regulation. It must also improve enforcement to better hold accountable those employers who flout the rules and endanger workers.
The new rules show a strong response to criticism to 2021 measures which did not fully trigger until temperatures hit 100 degrees.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends employers reduce work schedules when the heat index, which accounts for heat and humidity, reaches 100 to 108 degrees. However, a 2018 CDC study found that out of 14 heat-related fatalities studied, six occurred when the heat index was less than 91. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that outdoor workers have died of heat stroke when the heat index was only 86 degrees and that heat-related illnesses can happen at even lower values.
Washington’s new rules, in place through the end of September, will now kick in at 89 degrees for most workers and require access to cool water and shaded areas, as well as paid cool-down breaks every two hours. Wildfire rules require employers to monitor air quality and take protective action when workers are exposed to smoke.
Of course, these workers are doing essential jobs where risk must be managed, said Pam Lewison, agriculture research director at the Washington Policy Center. Safety is a top concern but there’s a risk these protections can go too far.
“What happens with L&I is that their response is, ‘Well, somebody got ticketed for speeding, so we’re going to change the speed limit.’ And that’s problematic,” she said. “You have farmers who have done the right thing all along. But now, instead of being able to drive 55 miles an hour, they have to drive 45.”
Striking the balance between safety and letting workers do the job that earns their salaries and allows companies to stay in business is critical. Yet, while L&I should listen to valid employer concerns — such as how a blanket heat policy may ignore some of the particular climate differences in our vast state — protecting workers must remain the focus.
No one should die trying to make a living.