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Extreme heat has killed hundreds of people across the Pacific Northwest and Canada this summer. The U.S. has no federal protections to keep workers safe during heat waves, even as the warming climate makes those heat waves more likely.
But as Monica Samayoa of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, the state is creating its own rules.
MONICA SAMAYOA, BYLINE: Andrew Morton works overnight shifts for a beverage and snack company. There's no AC in the warehouse, just fans. And during the last extreme heat wave in Oregon, he recorded himself arriving at work.
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ANDREW MORTON: It is so humid and oppressively hot out here.
SAMAYOA: Morton started coming in at midnight instead of his usual 4 a.m. start to beat the heat. But that didn't work out like he thought. He said he felt like he was working in a sauna.
MORTON: When I came in, I'm like, wow, it's still pretty warm. I'm going to have to treat it as if it's the middle of the afternoon on a warm summer day.
SAMAYOA: Not all workers can change their schedule and avoid working in the heat or directly under the sun. On June 26, a farmworker was found dead moving irrigation lines. This prompted the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration to impose emergency safety rules. They require employers to provide shade, water and extra breaks when temperatures reach 90 degrees, for both indoor and outdoor employees.
But Kate Suisman of the Northwest Workers' Justice Project worries the penalties for violations aren't strict enough.
KATE SUISMAN: You can have the greatest rules on paper, and we're fighting for these strong protections. But if employers know that the penalty is, like, a warning letter, what's that going to do?
SAMAYOA: The recent wave of heat-related deaths laid bare another problem.
VIVEK SHANDAS: What we're finding is places that were historically disinvested or are currently not really invested areas are some of the hottest places in Portland.
SAMAYOA: Vivek Shandas, a professor at Portland State University, says more people died in areas with less tree canopy, near highways or parking lots and industrial plants. He says materials like cinder block, brick or steel and concrete absorb more heat. And these areas tend to be where a majority of communities of color live. But the highest temperatures he saw were homeless encampments.
SHANDAS: Those were about 135 degrees. And that is clearly enough to kill somebody if you're exposed to that.
SAMAYOA: Shandas says there are solutions to help prevent future heat-related deaths - for example, building codes that take heat into consideration. But he thinks that's not likely unless the Federal Emergency Management Agency starts to explicitly consider heat waves a natural disaster, just like tornadoes or hurricanes. Meanwhile, Oregon is working to educate people on the health effects of the warming climate as summers get hotter and drier.
RICHARD LEMAN: The first step, of course, is prevention.
SAMAYOA: Richard Leman with Oregon Health Authority says the agency is holding listening sessions and workshops. He says too many people don't realize that exercising in the heat or staying outside too long can lead to heat exhaustion. In late June, more than 800 people went to the emergency room for heat-related illness. Many who died during that time were older and had underlying health conditions. Some were found home alone, without an AC unit or a fan. Leman says, that speaks to another change that's needed.
LEMAN: There's the old saying, it takes a village. And we often think of that as far as raising a child. But also, we've got to keep an eye out for folks in our community.
SAMAYOA: The temporary rules to protect workers laboring in excessive heat will stay in place for 180 days. Oregon OSHA aims to finalize permanent rules in the fall.
For NPR News, I'm Monica Samayoa in Portland.
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