HEAT WAVE: Outdoor workers in Malheur County adjust to dangerous heat

Construction workers in downtown Vale finish up their final touches before calling it a day around 2 p.m. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/ The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – Some workers in Malheur County will find themselves sweltering in fields and on the road as they labor outdoors in dangerous conditions as the county heats up. With a potentially historic heat wave, anyone who works outside is at heightened risk for heat illnesses.

Over 38% of employees in Malheur County work outdoors or in warehouses that will be especially at-risk during the heatwave, according to data from the US Census Bureau. 

The county is under an excessive heat warning from July 2, with temperatures predicted to reach as high as 110 degrees. 

Many outdoor jobs will proceed despite the dangerous weather, leaving it up to employers to protect their workers.

Road construction will continue in Vale and Nyssa, where workers will be pouring concrete to pave roads and sidewalks in town and on U.S. 20. Work has already been starting earlier in the morning given that even the cooling asphalt can’t stand the high heat.

“It stresses out the crews and the contractors, so we want to make sure that they’ll take a lot of breaks,” said Tom Strandberg, regional public information officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “It’s not business as usual. We want to make sure that they’ll be taking precautions and that they’ll be prepared.”

Safety precautions as prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration include regular breaks, shade and drinking a cup of water every 15 minutes.

The agencies also recommend working in groups of at least two to monitor signs of heat-related illness. These signs include cramps, cold and clammy skin, dizziness, and in extreme cases fever and unconsciousness. 

Strandberg acknowledged that construction delays in such weather can be stressful for drivers too, and asked them to be patient. 

“We’ve got crews working out there in that heat – and it’s not fun for anybody – so slow down and wave, and we’ll get through this,” he said.

OSHA is currently developing a rule specifically to address heat stress, but still expects employers to take preventative steps, said Public Information Officer Aaron Corvin in an email to the Enterprise.

“Under our current regulations, conditions resulting in heat-related illness can be cited under health hazard control measures or by one of the extraordinary hazards rules for agricultural employers or for all other employers,” Corvin said.

OSHA inspections, conducted without notice, reviews employer’s plans to address heat-related stress. The agency also provides penalty-free consultation for employers to develop or improve such plans.

GHS Construction will continue building two duplexes and preparing another slab in Ontario, according to general contractor James Grissett. To beat the heat workers will be on reduced hours starting at 7 a.m., as soon as local noise ordinances permit, and ending around lunch.

The high temperatures also come during an important time for agricultural work, where farms are weeding and irrigating crops that are already at risk after a dry spring.

“The weeds don’t care about the weather,” said Stuart Reitz at the Oregon State University Extension Service for Malheur County. “You don’t have the luxury of saying ‘We’ll just come back when it’s cooler.’”

He said that is especially the case for those working on the county’s roughly 13,000 acres of onions, and its 180,000-200,000 acres of irrigated crops. 

“They do take breaks because it doesn’t do anyone any good to have heat exhaustion,” Reitz said. “You’re done for the day, or even three days. It benefits everything if people have the breaks and can take care.”

Farmer Bruce Corn of the 1,200 acre Bruce and Renae Corn Farms said his crew of around 15 won’t be out during the hottest part of the day, and will be doing as much as possible in the mornings.

“I can remember a couple times where it’s been 112-115 but when it gets over 110 that’s a whole different scenario,” Corn said. “It puts stress on people working, and not just farm people. People working the roads, people working construction, anyone outside will be affected.”

Postal workers are another group who will be outside in the blistering record-breaking temperatures. Mail carriers from the Postal Service use trucks without air conditioning, but have been trained in recognizing heat stroke and exhaustion. 

If a worker from the Vale post office calls for help, Postmaster Susan Schlager will drive out herself to pick them up. She said worker safety is a priority during high heat, as with any other extreme weather condition.

The post office provides drivers with water and cool rags, but Schlager said people at home are welcome to extend a helping hand.

“Take them an ice cream bar or a cold bottle of water,” Schlager said.

News tip? Reach reporter Abbey McDonald by email at [email protected].


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Tips for cooling down at home

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