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Oregon enacts rules to protect workers as heat wave death toll continues to rise

Hundreds have sought shelter at a cooling center at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, June 28, 2021. The cooling center provided water, snacks, meals, blankets, and cots or mats for sleeping.
Hundreds have sought shelter at a cooling center at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, June 28, 2021. The cooling center provided water, snacks, meals, blankets, and cots or mats for sleeping.

As state officials report more than 100 deaths from the region-wide heatwave last week, Gov. Kate Brown has announced she’s directing state Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) officials to enact temporary rules to protect workers from future extreme heat events.

The record-breaking heat that blanketed much of the Pacific Northwest late last month is responsible for 107 deaths in Oregon, a figure almost certain to rise, according to new numbers from the state medical examiner’s office.

That led to an announcement Tuesday from the governor’s office that OSHA will implement new rules to expand requirements for employers to provide shade, rest and cool water for workers during high temperatures.

According to a press release, the state will continue to work on adoption of permanent rules protecting worker safety during extreme weather events. The permanent rules are expected to be adopted this fall.

“I am concerned that our recent record-breaking heat wave in the Willamette Valley is a harbinger of what’s to come,” Gov. Brown said in a statement. “All Oregonians should be able to go to work knowing that conditions will be safe and that they will return home to their families at the end of the day. While Oregon OSHA has been working to adopt permanent rules related to heat, it became clear that immediate action was necessary in order to protect Oregonians, especially those whose work is critical to keeping Oregon functioning and oftentimes must continue during extreme weather.”

Multnomah County alone has now reported 67 deaths health officials believe were due to the excessive heat, or the medical condition known as hyperthermia.

Portland saw a high temperature of 116 degrees during the four-day heat wave.

County officials have referred to it as “an unprecedented mass casualty event.”

But they’re also acknowledging that it could be months before a full reckoning of the death toll is complete. Death investigations can be complicated, particularly in cases in which the deceased person had underlying medical problems that may have been exacerbated by high temperatures.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury has told staff to review the work they did to protect residents during the heat wave and to make recommendations on what future responses should include.

Multnomah County leaders are asking state and federal officials to help prevent future climate-change disasters by, among other things, establishing a national renewable energy standard as a means to reduce carbon emissions and invest in both renewable energy projects and more efficient and weather-resistant low-income housing.

The majority of heat-related deaths counted so far involved people who did not have access to air conditioning or fans.

In Marion County, where the temperature hit 117 in some spots, 13 heat-related deaths have been reported.

The medical examiner also reported deaths in Clackamas, Deschutes, Linn, Polk, Umatilla and Washington counties.

Scientists say a heat wave so intense in the Pacific Northwest is extremely rare. But it’s consistent with the effects of human-caused climate change.

In response to temperatures soaring well above 110 degrees last week, Gov. Brown directed state agencies to complete an after action review to determine how the state can improve its response and outcomes.

The governor will also be meeting with agency directors, local leaders, and statewide Medicaid partners within impacted communities throughout the next several weeks. The governor’s office says those meetings are meant to gather recommendations, ensure steps are being taken immediately to prepare for the next heat wave and discuss how to better prepare to protect the health of low-income Oregonians as the state anticipates additional extreme weather events in near the future.

The state is also working to remind Oregonians that Medicaid members may be eligible to receive air conditioners if they have a qualifying underlying condition. This is part of the health-related services that are offered through Oregon’s CCOs. Medicaid members should contact their CCO to see if they qualify for this assistance.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting