Rules protect workers from smoke and heat, but just temporarily
The seasonal workforce on local wineries will be harvesting grapes by hand in September, under emergency workplace protections from excessive heat and wildfire smoke.
The rules from Oregon's Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which require improved access to shade and water, masks in especially smoky conditions, and cooling controls in employer-provided housing, were issued in July and August — part of the state's on-the-fly response to unprecedented heat and early-summer wildfires. But they are only temporary: They expire in January 2022.
Local labor organizers and policymakers say they want those rules made permanent.
"Last September, we heard about community members deciding between harvesting crops without the right mask or forgoing that income," said Ira Cuello Martinez, deputy political director for Oregon's largest Latino advocacy group, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN). "We've been waiting, and we hope that the official rules will be finalized by the end of the year."
The emergency rules kick in at a heat index of 80 degrees. David Bishop, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Portland, said average daily high temperatures in the area will probably remain above that threshold until at least the last week of September.
Although it was overshadowed at the time by her response to the then-emergent COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Kate Brown issued a wide-ranging executive order in March 2020 that asked OSHA and the Oregon Health Authority to develop "a proposal for standards to protect workplace employees from wildfire smoke and excessive heat" by June 2021 — a deadline that has since been been pushed back.
"We continue to work on developing permanent rules for both with an eye on adopting them this fall," Oregon OSHA spokesperson Aaron Corvin said in an email.
The department is still investigating the cause of the death of 38-year-old Sebastian Francisco Perez, who collapsed while moving irrigation lines as temperatures exceeded 100 degrees on a Marion County farm in late June.
Corvin said Oregon OSHA will give out maximum penalties ranging from $12,675 for "not a willful or repeat offense" and $126,749 fines for businesses who violate the emergency orders, which were both issued after Perez's death.
State Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove, said she has spoken with both PCUN and the Farmers Bureau about permanent rules.
"We're working on a permanent solution," McLain said. "Yes, enforcement can be a challenge. We need to give sector owners resources and training to support self-implementation. Secondly, if they're not doing that, you make sure you have consequences, so we'll be talking about that."
Forest Grove/Cornelius Chamber of Commerce executive director Juanita Lint said there are over 60 wineries within a 20-mile radius of Forest Grove. Until this year, she owned one of them: Plum Hill Vineyards outside Gaston.
While Montinore Estate, just south of Forest Grove, can produce 60,000 cases per year from its 240 acres, Lint estimated 70% of the Forest Grove area's vineyards produce fewer than 5,000 cases each year.
Monte Pitt, co-owner of Patton Valley Vineyard in Gaston, said he is growing 30 acres this season. He expects anywhere from 12 to 40 workers will be picking grapes as soon as next week.
While Pitt's hardy wine grapes endured temperatures that soared over 110 degrees earlier this summer, he noted that his harvest will come earlier than usual, thanks to a consistently warmer-than-average growing season.
"Most of the harvesting of grapes in the valley is done by people by hand, hand-picking," Pitt said.
One silver lining? While the Bootleg Fire and other wildfires have scorched swaths of Oregon wilderness this summer, the Portland area has not seen anything like the massive Riverside Fire that tore through rural Clackamas and Marion counties last September, choking the region with thick smoke that lingered for well over a week.
As long as that holds true, that means better conditions for workers, as well as a more promising grape harvest.
"We haven't had nearly as much smoke as last year," said Pitt. "As we harvest over the next few weeks, I I think we're all hopeful this year won't be a repeat of the smoke damage from last year."
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