Silver Taube: An indoor workplace heat standard is long overdue
Worksafe attorney AnaStacia Wright testifying at an Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board meeting on May 17, 2023. Photo courtesy of Worksafe.

Under a 2016 law, regulators had until the end of 2018 to submit long-promised standards on indoor workplace heat to the governor-appointed Occupational Health and Safety Standards Board for adoption. But once again this summer there will be no protection for workers sweltering in warehouses, kitchens and other workplaces.

Extreme heat is one of the deadliest consequences of climate change. Cal/OSHA received 549 safety complaints related to indoor heat in 2023. R. Jisung Park, an environmental economist at the University of Pennsylvania, led a 2021 study that looked at workers’ compensation claims from 2001 to 2018 across California and compared the injury records with daily temperatures. The study estimated that working in hot conditions led to an extra 20,000 worker injuries a year in the state.

The long-promised standards would require employers in facilities where temperatures exceed 82 degrees to provide cooldown areas, water and rest breaks to prevent workers from overheating. The standards also require air conditioning, schedule adjustments or other measures to prevent workers from working in temperatures over 87 degrees. Business groups such as the California Farm Bureau want the standard to apply only if it’s hotter than 95 degrees. However, a 2021 Rand economic impact report concluded employers would save money because the rule would cut indoor workplace heat injuries by 40% by 2030.

This year the standards hit a roadblock when Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration expressed concerns about how much it would cost for state prisons and other correctional facilities to comply with the law. The night before the final vote, Standards Board members were instructed by the state’s Department of Finance to remove the vote from the agenda.

Stephen Knight, executive director of the workplace health and safety advocacy group Worksafe expressed the outrage of health and safety advocates when he said: “The people who made that decision (to cancel the vote) don’t have to look in the face of the workers” whose “own bodies are paying the price for this kind of gamesmanship.”

At a public hearing in March, Cal/OSHA Standards Board members heard emotional testimony from workers and labor representatives about employees passing out and in some cases dying from suffocating conditions inside commercial kitchens, laundry facilities and fast-food restaurants.

The Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, disgusted by the last-minute directive, made the unprecedented move of taking an unofficial vote on the rules. The symbolic vote passed unanimously. Approved regulations cannot become law without the sign-off from the state’s Department of Finance, which it withdrew. The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board rebuked the governor and called it a black mark on Newsom’s record. Standards Board member Laura Stock said: “It’s completely outrageous … This is an urgent public health issue.”

Cal/OSHA has submitted a revised proposal to exempt state and local correctional facilities that will go to the Standards Board. Cal/OSHA is still aiming to have the revised heat illness protection standard take effect before late June.

“It’s a huge concern that prison workplaces are being excluded from the heat standard, leaving not just guards but also nurses, janitors and many other prison workers across California unprotected from heat, not to mention all the incarcerated workers vulnerable to those dangerous conditions as well,” Worksafe attorney AnaStacia Wright said.

An indoor heat standard will save lives and is long overdue.

San José Spotlight columnist Ruth Silver Taube is supervising attorney of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, supervising attorney of the Santa Clara County’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement Legal Advice Line and a member of Santa Clara County’s Fair Workplace Collaborative. Her columns appear every second Thursday of the month. Contact her at [email protected].

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