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In absence of heat and smoke workplace standards, Idaho nonprofits step up

Community Council of Idaho

If it’s above a certain temperature this summer, employers in some of Idaho’s neighboring states will have new labor regulations to follow to protect people who work outside, including farmworkers.

Emergency rules in Washington kick in beginning June 15, when it’s hotter than 89 degrees. Then, employers need to provide workers with at least a quarter gallon of water every hour, adequate shade and paid cool-down breaks.

Oregon’s new rules go further, starting at 80 degrees, and similarly lay out requirements for water, shade and breaks. Employers will also have to provide N95 masks when the air quality is deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Irene Ruiz, the bilingual community organizer for the nonprofit Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, said Idaho farmworkers she’s talked to say the rules matter, even if they don’t exist in the Gem State.

“They feel like it’s a step forward to protect their livelihoods, and to protect their families and to protect what they do while they’re working,” she said.

Unlike Oregon and Washington, Idaho does not have its own state occupational safety office; it follows federal OSHA rules. There's a general requirement for employers to provide a workplace free of hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm.

The Biden Administration kicked off a rulemaking process last fall to protect workers specifically from heat, but developing new standards could take years.

OSHA also started a “national emphasis program” on heat this spring, which means it will conduct workplace inspections in high-risk industries when the heat index is 80 degrees or higher.

It said the new initiative is necessary because climate change is increasing the danger of extreme heat.

Still, in absence of a heat standard that applies to Idaho, local nonprofit leaders, like Ruiz, are stepping up to educate workers on heat-related illnesses and gather supplies to protect them from the heat and smoke.

Last year, she helped organize a drive with the Idaho Immigrant Resource Alliance to deliver water, Gatorade, sunscreen, bandanas, hats, ice and other supplies to farmworkers in southern Idaho and on the Fort Hall Reservation.

The Idaho Immigrant Resource Alliance is a coalition of nonprofits that formed to support farmworkers and immigrants in Idaho during COVID-19.

Amidst the heatwave last summer, and especially after an Oregon farmworker died at a worksite, Ruiz said the organizers sprang into action.

They hosted a webinar in Spanish with the U.S. Department of Labor, educating people on how to stay safe in extreme heat. They also raised about $20,000 in donations.

To be proactive, they’re kicking off a new campaign this year. Ruiz said the group has a partner in North Idaho, too, to distribute resources in that region.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen 

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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