Trainor: Protect Oregon workers from perils of extreme heat, smoke exposure
In 2020, Oregon's essential workers faced unfathomable challenges, many of which continue to this day.
We need to see strong protections on the books for workers exposed to extreme heat and smoke during wildfires, just like we need strong worker protections from COVID-19.
The past 14 months undeniably have shown us the vital connection between the health of workers and that of our communities. That connection was visible when we saw frontline health care workers sleeping in tents to avoid exposing their families to COVID-19, when grocery workers demanded vaccination priority, and as wildfires ripped apart our state starting in August 2020.
Never in my lifetime would I have expected to see essential and frontline workers forced to make so many incredibly difficult decisions within a single year. No one should have to choose between earning a living and their health, yet far too many Oregonians had to do exactly that for both COVID-19 and the extraordinary wildfire season. Approximately 40,000 of them lost their homes. Entire communities were reduced to rubble.
While we hope and pray to see COVID-19 eradicated, we know that wildfires are expected to continue to set terrifying new records unless drastic measures are taken to combat climate change as well as local, state and federal wildfire resource management. We are learning lessons in 2020 and now 2021 that, if ignored, will have dire consequences — especially for workers who don't have the privilege and flexibility to work from home when things get bad.
One of these lessons is the need for our government and state agencies to be prepared for any future crisis of any magnitude. When it was clear that the spread of COVID-19 would require a new set of safety and health rules and regulations for workplaces and schools, Oregon's workers spoke up. Hundreds of frontline workers gave heart-wrenching testimony of their working conditions, which eventually spurred Oregon's Occupational Health and Safety Administration to create a set of workplace rules to defend against COVID-19. Worker advocates implored lawmakers and state agencies to make sure these rules will actually help make work safer.
Wildfires need to be treated the same way, and we have it get it right before the next fire season hits. Oregon workers must be protected from extreme, unhealthy conditions like wildfire smoke and excessive heat while on the job. Mandatory rules across workplaces will help workers and employers respond appropriately to extreme conditions and protect health and safety.
No one should have to decide between their health and a paycheck and both the immediate and long-term health impacts from smoke and heat are significant, and in some cases fatal. We do not have room for weak regulations or hesitation.
Oregon OSHA is in the process of creating rules for preventing exposure to smoke and extreme heat. As Oregon's federation of unions, we know that lived experience in harsh conditions informs the best policies and practices and we hope to see Oregon OSHA, lawmakers, and Gov. Kate Brown hear from the working people who cut the fire lines, drive the trucks, produce the food and do everything else needed to make Oregon run when the skies turn orange and smoke fills the air.
They serve and protect us. Let's do the same for them. Let's create a mandatory, science-based rule to make sure working people are protected from smoke and extreme heat.
We owe it to them.
Graham Trainor is president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, the statewide federation of labor unions, representing more than 300,000 Oregonians.
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