Heatwave sparks dozens of worker complaints; 14 suspected deaths

The state medical examiner released no details about the fatalities in Multnomah, Clackamas, Marion and Umatilla counties

By: and - August 2, 2022 6:00 am

During the heatwave in July, temperatures soared to 103 degrees in Salem. (Getty Images)

The weeklong heatwave in Oregon ended on Monday with 14 suspected deaths and dozens of complaints about companies not following new rules to protect workers from the heat. 

The state medical examiner tracked 14 deaths that may be heat-related: seven in Multnomah County, four in Marion County, two in Clackamas County and one in Umatilla County. That’s at least person died each day between Monday and Saturday, a release said. 

The examiner’s office declined to provide ages or other information about the fatalities. It said the exact cause of death likely will take two months to determine. Last summer, when temperatures reached 116 degrees in Portland in June, nearly 100 people died from excessive heat. Salem was even hotter last year, spiking at 117 degrees.

Last week temperatures soared to 102 degrees in Portland and Eugene and reached 103 degrees in Salem. The heatwave extended for eight days, with highs of 90 or more on eight days, said Lisa Kriederman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. That compares with a five-day streak last June, she said.

New heat rules went into effect this year to prevent hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, construction workers, utility workers and others who work outside from getting heat stroke or heat exhaustion.

Aaron Corvin, spokesman for the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division which regulates workplaces, said more than 60 heat-related complaints were filed, with more than half of those on Monday and Tuesday last week. The division launched about 130 inspections of job sites and has at least nine open inspections involving citations related to the heat, Corvin said. 

“We anticipate there will be more,” Corvin said in an email. “We also have other heat inspections in progress.” He said the citations were pending and did not release them.

File a complaint

To file a complaint in English or Spanish with Oregon OSHA, visit this webpage.  

Also, if you are experiencing heat stress, get medical help.

The symptoms include: 

  • dizziness and confusion.
  • loss of appetite and feeling sick.
  • excessive sweating and pale, clammy skin.
  • cramps in the arms, legs and stomach.
  • fast breathing or pulse.
  • excessive thirst

OSHA can fine companies that violate rules a maximum of $13,653 per incident.  The maximum penalty for willful or repeated violations is $136,532.

Corvin said one complaint prompted an inspection last Thursday of a Fred Meyer warehouse in Clackamas. In Portland, Oregon OSHA is still investigating at least three heat complaints.

“They include food carts and restaurants,” Corvin said.

He said officials are investigating an agricultural worksite in Hermiston following a heat-related incident involving a worker who developed heat stress symptoms, Corvin said. That person, who received medical help, filed the complaint, Corvin said. He did not provide more details.

Inspectors are also investigating three workplaces in Medford and launched “multiple” inspections in Eugene following 10 heat-related complaints, Corvin said.

“We are seeing complaints involving allegations of a lack of water, rest breaks, acclimatization and training,” Corvin said. “We are seeing such complaints involving warehouses, restaurants and construction sites.”

The heat rules, which went into effect June 15, kick in when the combined temperature and relative humidity – called the heat index – reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Employers must provide shaded areas for workers and enough drinking water so that each employee can consume 32 ounces, or a quarter of a gallon, an hour. The water cannot be warmer than 77 degrees and companies must offer training to educate workers about the risk factors for heat illness. At 90 degrees, employers must monitor, or allow a buddy system, to check employees for symptoms of heat illness. Employers also must mandate regular breaks for workers. Employers are required to have an emergency medical plan to treat heat illness.

The Bureau of Labor and Industries, which investigates worker complaints about wages, breaks and discrimination, has received six complaints related to heat, said a BOLI spokesperson Kelsey Dietrick.

“Two were against UPS. The other complaints involved restaurants, a warehouse and an aquatic facility,” Dietrick said.

Kate Suisman, an attorney at the Portland-based Northwest Workers Justice Project, which advocates for low-wage and immigrant workers, said her organization has been trying to educate workers about the rules. She said parts of the rules are difficult to enforce because they’re too vague.

“For example, the new rule is that after 90 degrees, every two hours you get a 10-minute break or something as effective. It’s hard to enforce or ask for what you’re entitled to when the rules are so nebulous,” Suisman said.

Farmworkers file complaints

Oregon’s 86,000 farmworkers face an elevated risk of heat stress. Some agricultural sites are not following the rules, said Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN, or Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste.

“We have received several complaints from farmworkers at a few nurseries in the valley about the heat rules not being followed,” Lopez said in an email. “One farmworker called just this past week saying ‘We’re working shifts in 100 degree weather. They weren’t providing water or enough breaks.’” 

She said many employees are 50 or older, which makes them especially vulnerable to heat. Infants and children are also sensitive to heat along with people with chronic ailments.

Many workers are hesitant to speak up, Suisman said.

“Many don’t have savings, they have families, the risks are too great to speak up,” Suisman said.

She said the situation is better this year than last, but advocates said employers need to do a better job of educating workers about their rights.

“Most workers still aren’t familiar with the new requirements. Most were not given training through an employer,” Suisman said.

Oregon OSHA has issued press releases, social media posts and sent out email blasts “to remind workers of their right to a safe and healthy workplace and employers of their obligations to follow the requirements,” Corvin said.

Northwest Workers’ Justice Project officials have held trainings in person and over Zoom to educate workers about their rights. It held a session last Friday for workers in construction, landscaping, cleaning and farm work. A landscaper who attended said at his job site employees started early to finish by early afternoon when temperatures peak.

Lopez called on companies to hold their own training sessions.

“These are life-saving and common sense measures,” Lopez said.

Not all employers agree with the requirements. The same day the heat rules went into effect, three industry groups – Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, Associated Oregon Loggers, Inc. and the Oregon Forest Industries Council –  challenged OSHA’s authority to enforce them in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Medford. Besides OSHA, the lawsuit named its acting administrator, Renee Stapleton, as a defendant along with the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services and its director, Andrew Stolfi. The case is pending.

Along with complaint investigations, the state has distributed air conditioning units.

The Oregon Health Authority and state Department of Human Services have distributed 1,000 units to people in the Portland area, mid-Willamette Valley and central, eastern and southern Oregon, according to Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the health authority. Applicants have to be “vulnerable to the health effects of high-heat events with the hopes of preventing the loss of human lives due to the extreme weather.” People who are homebound also qualify.

The Legislature granted the health authority $5 million for AC units. It will purchase 2,000 more this summer, but it’s not clear when those might be distributed.

The Legislature also allocated millions of dollars for more heating and cooling shelters in a program that’s being managed by the Department of Human Services, and for heat pumps through the Department of Energy. Those programs have been slow to roll out and have not yet benefited anyone. 

DHS did not respond to a request for comment about how the long-term care facilities it regulates fared during the heatwave. Jake Sunderland, press secretary for the department, said it tried to help Oregonians last week by distributing water, staffing cooling centers and suppying them with cooling devices.

Ten DHS staff covered 90 shifts in cooling centers in Multnomah, Clackamas, Wasco and Jackson counties and help Morrow County pay for staff for its center, Sunderland said. He said the department distributed nearly 40 pallets of water nearly 40,000 bottles of water to cooling centers around the state.


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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.

Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.