Washington has new rules protecting outdoor workers from the heat — but advocates say they're not being enforced
Lucía Chávez has been a farmworker in the Yakima and Skagit valleys for more than 40 years. She said working outside in the heat can be brutal.
“I get terrible headaches,” she said in Spanish. “I get tired just walking. My heart races.”
If you think it’s been hot in the Seattle area recently, try east of the Cascades. Big swaths of the state hit triple digits for days during the last heat wave and are still reaching the high 90s.
With climate change, the Pacific Northwest is in for hotter summers and more frequent heat waves. That’s uncomfortable for pretty much everyone — and downright dangerous for some, including those who work outside.
“I’ve seen a lot of people faint” working in the heat, Chávez said in Spanish.
Last year, two farmworkers died of heat-related causes in the Northwest — one in Washington and one in Oregon.
Neither state has a record of any workers dying of heat-related causes in 2022 so far. But worker advocates say a hops worker died in the Yakima Valley in mid-July and heat may have played a role. The state said it can’t comment because it has an open inspection of the workplace.
This summer and last, Washington state instituted new emergency rules to protect people working outside in the heat. The new regulations are the strictest Washington has ever had, but worker advocates say the state needs to step up its enforcement, finding and fining employers who aren’t following the new rules, in order to adequately protect workers.
The new rules require that employers provide shade and “sufficiently cool” water. When the temperature reaches 89 degrees, employers have to give workers paid cool-down breaks every two hours, and they have to check in on all their employees regularly.
Tyler Carpenter is a sixth-generation hops farmer in the Yakima Valley. He oversees worker health and safety and regulatory compliance on a 2,000-acre family farm in Granger.
Carpenter recently gave a tour of what he called a “baby hop field,” where trellises and overhead cables hold up budding hops vines.
“There is no shade out here,” he said. “The wire cable up above — I mean, sun, wind, everything just goes right through it, and so we have to be able to get these tents out here.”
He bought the open-sided tents in response to Washington’s new regulations, and he started adding ice to the water he provides for the farm’s employees.
“Looks like my foreman might actually be refilling the water jugs right now,” he said.
Carpenter said it’ll be a logistical dance at the height of the hops harvest to make sure all 300 of his farm’s employees have cool water and regular check-ins.
But even though they mean more work, the new rules don’t bother him, he said, because, “overall, I think that it’s a benefit to the farmer to have healthy employees — to have people as happy as they can be in 95-degree heat.”
Workers say most employers are like the Carpenters; they’ve made changes at their farms to comply with the new rules — but some haven’t. And Edgar Franks, a farmworker organizer in the Skagit Valley, said the state needs to do more to enforce the regulations.
“For employers to take this seriously, there’s got to be something to hold employers accountable that are not following the rules,” he said.
Labor and Industries is the agency tasked with keeping the state’s workers safe and healthy. An agency spokesperson told KUOW that when a complaint comes in, the agency starts by calling or emailing the company. She said in an email that that step is “basically letting the company look into the situation themselves and report back to us if they found or fixed the hazard.”
She said only if the complaint is egregious, such as an employer not providing any water to employees on a hot day, does the agency send out an inspector right away.
After this report was published, a different spokesperson with the agency wrote to KUOW saying that the tactic of contacting employers by phone or email “is used sparingly” and that the agency requires “direct evidence they corrected a problem in a way that we believe is appropriate.”
He said the agency most often responds to complaints by doing an unannounced site inspection.
Franks, the worker organizer, said farmworkers often don’t report unsafe situations to the state because they don’t trust it to take action.
“There’s no real big punishments,” Franks said, “so workers are like, ‘Well, that didn’t work.’”
Labor and Industries “is definitely on the side of the business,” said Dina Lorraine, a spokesperson for the agency.
“We’re not the police out there, you know — trying to find fault with businesses,” Lorraine said. “We like to partner with businesses and with employers, educate them and help them to keep employees safe and healthy.”
After this report was published, a different agency spokesperson wrote to KUOW to say that “it’s not accurate to say that L&I is on the side of businesses,” and that the agency often cites, fines and sometimes prosecutes employers for workplace safety violations.
Franks, the worker organizer, wants the agency to rely more on random inspections, so that it’s not on the workers to report problems.
One agency spokesperson initially said random inspections would take too much time away from its core mission — preventing illness and injuries — but another spokesperson later told KUOW it "routinely" conducts surprise inspections.
Lorraine said it makes her “sad” to hear that some workers don’t think the agency responds adequately to complaints and said that the agency tries to build trust with workers by talking with them and using news releases and social media.
The agency is working on permanent rules for what employers have to provide for their employees in hot weather. It hopes to have those in place by next summer.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information from Labor and Industries.