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Advocates say rules protecting outdoor workers from heat aren't being enforced

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Record heat seared the Western U.S. this summer. Washington state has rules in place trying to keep outdoor workers safe in such extreme heat. But some employees don't believe that these state rules make a difference. Eilis O'Neill of member station KUOW reports from the Yakima Valley.

EILIS O'NEILL, BYLINE: With climate change, central Washington is in for hotter summers on average and more frequent heat waves. Lucia Chavez has been a farm worker here for more than 40 years. She says working outside in the heat can be brutal.

LUCIA CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

O'NEILL: Chavez says she gets headaches. She gets tired just walking. Her heart races. She's seen her co-workers faint.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

O'NEILL: Last year, one farm worker in Washington and one farm worker in Oregon died of heat-related causes. Washington's new heat rules kick in at 89 degrees and require shade, cool water and sufficient rest. Chavez says she's worked at places that don't follow those rules, but she's never reported anything to the state.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

O'NEILL: She says the state agency tasked with keeping workers safe doesn't do anything. So many workers leave it there. They just keep quiet.

EDGAR FRANKS: There's no real big punishment. So workers are like, well, that didn't work, so...

O'NEILL: Edgar Franks is a farm worker organizer in Washington. Public records show that Washington state received about 50 complaints and referrals for violations of the state's heat rules over the past two summers. Compare that to Oregon, which received more than 250 heat-related complaints this year alone. Franks says the reason for that big difference is what Washington state does when it hears a complaint.

FRANKS: When they do investigations and they find company negligence or, you know, wrongdoing, they reduce fines or don't fine at all.

O'NEILL: In 2022 so far, Oregon has fined 10 employers for heat-related violations. The state says it's still investigating another 60 employers and expects many of those investigations to result in fines. Washington state, on the other hand, only documented one fine to one employer for violating the state's heat rules in all of 2021 and none so far in 2022.

TYLER CARPENTER: This is a baby hop field. There is no shade out here.

O'NEILL: Tyler Carpenter is a sixth-generation hops farmer in the Yakima Valley. He focuses on worker safety on the 2,000-acre family farm. He points to the trellises and overhead cables that hold up baby hops.

CARPENTER: Sun, wind, everything just goes right through it, and so we have to be able to get these tents out here.

O'NEILL: The tents provide shade for the workers' rest breaks. This is what it looks like when employers comply with the state's rules without any need for enforcement. Carpenter says he's never had an unannounced visit from Labor and Industries, or LNI.

CARPENTER: LNI used to be a lot more of a dirty word around here when my grandpa was running things.

O'NEILL: Carpenter says his view of the state agency is different.

CARPENTER: I've befriended a lot of those guys. I've brought them in for consultations because if I can do something to make it a better place to work, then I'd rather do that.

CRAIG BLACKWOOD: We want employees to be safe.

O'NEILL: That's Craig Blackwood. He oversees occupational safety and health for Washington state. He says for decades, the state worked to build trust with employers, to work with them to improve workplace safety. But now, he says, the agency is working to build trust with the people in the field.

BLACKWOOD: We have been working on the worker trust issue, especially in the agricultural space, 'cause there's definitely a mistrust of LNI.

O'NEILL: Blackwood says the agency follows up with workers after every complaint, and it's hiring more bilingual staff to try to proactively reach out to farm workers and let them know they can file complaints anonymously; their employer won't find out.

For NPR News, I'm Eilis O'Neill in the Yakima Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eilis O'Neill