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Climate & Comp: As Heat Wave Continues, California Mandates Heat Protections for Indoor Workers

25 Jun, 2024 Liz Carey

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Sacramento, CA (WorkersCompensation.com) – As a heat wave continues to blanket portions of the U.S., California is expected to become the third state in the country to implement heat protections for indoor workers.

The policy won’t go into effect until August, but it will require employers to provide water breaks and cool areas when indoor temperatures hit 82 degrees. Only two other states have indoor heat protections, Oregon and Minnesota.

On Thursday, the standards board at the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) voted to approve the new roles. They now go to the state’s Office of Administrative Law which is expected to expedite final approvals for the rule. Officials said the rule was initially expected to be implemented in 2019, but faced numerous delays.

The law is expected to protect around 1.4 million warehouse workers, restaurant employees, people with manufacturing jobs and others with indoor jobs that can be dangerously hot. The rules require that employers monitor workers for heat-related illnesses and provide them with water, breaks and cool areas when the temperatures inside rise above 81 degrees. If conditions reach 87 degrees, the rules require employers to take further actions from more breaks to adjusted schedules, slowing the pace of work, or providing cooling devices.

The state passed heat standards for outdoor workers in 2006.

In most states, workers are completely dependent upon their employers and employers’ workplace protections to keep them safe in the heat. While some unionized workplaces have bargained for accommodations in extreme heat, for the most part, workplace advocates and labor law experts said there are few legal protections in place. Regulations like California’s are more needed than ever, they said.

“This is a huge thing,” AnaStacia Nicol Wright, a policy manager at WorkSafe, a California nonprofit worker advocacy organization, said. “Workers need these protections as soon as possible.”

In the past few years, climate change has made heat waves hotter and longer. Those conditions are expected to continue to worsen. Climate scientists expect that by the middle of the century, heat index values over 100 will be three times more common in the Northeast than they are now.

In New Jersey, lawmakers are hoping to pass legislation to require employers to establish heat-related illness and injury prevention plans. The bill would also give employees access to cold water, paid rest and shade. Non-urgent tasks would have to be postponed during heat waves, legislators said. Additionally, the bill would give state labor officials to issue stop-work orders for job sites they feel are not taking adequate safety measures during heat waves. Bills in the state Senate and Assembly have moved through their respective committees last month, but amendments would push back the effective date to June 2025.

Since 2022, New Jersey has seen several workers succumb to the heat. An Amazon warehouse worker complained of heat illness and died in 2022, while several U.S. postal workers across the state were hospitalized with dehydration or heat exhaustion that same year. A New Jersey trash collector died that year after working in temperatures that exceeded 96 degrees, and a Bedminster roofer was found unconscious on the ground after working in 101-degree temperatures that year. The roofer later died in the hospital.

Still several business groups have been opposed to the standards, though. Opponents say it would keep their businesses from functioning during warmer weather, and add to their challenges as they handle worker shortages and inflation.

State Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-Union, the bill’s sponsor, said he did not believe the bill would pass before the June 30 end of the legislative session.

“The organized opposition against it, in my view… puts the bill in a position that it just can’t move forward,” Cryan told the North Jersey Record.

But activists and labor unions said without a federal standard, protections like those in California and New Jersey will take on added importance.

“As climate change advances, inadequately protected workers are in the crosshairs,” a letter from more than 30 workers’ rights organizations to New  Jersey elected officials said.

According to the EPA, heatwaves are occurring more frequently and are hotter than they were. The heatwave season has grown from an average of 53.5 days in the 2000s to 68.5 days in the 2010s and 72.7 days in the 2020s, the EPA said.

“Heat doesn’t get as much attention publicly, because it’s invisible in a lot of ways,” said Jenny Schuetz, an economist and senior fellow at Brookings Metro. “But more people in the US are exposed to high heat risk than to either floods or wildfires.”

Change is possible though. In Caribou, Maine, the heat index recently reached 103 degrees as the temperature hit a record-tying 96 degrees – 22 degrees hotter than temperatures normally seen there in June.

Tamara Lovewell, owner of Ruska Coffee Company in Caribou, told CNN that while her business was still doing good business during breakfast and lunch, she pivoted to a different menu in order to cool off the interior of the business. The company shut down the ovens, panini presses, steam tables and warming lamps in favor of colder items like sandwiches, wraps and salads.

“We don’t have A/C in the kitchen,” Lovewell said. “For now, we just changed out our menu, so we don’t have all of the hot equipment on to alleviate the extra stress on the staff.”

Even with those measures, Lovewell said she’s keeping an eye on the temperature inside.

“If it gets too hot in here, we will close our doors in a heartbeat,” she said. “We will never subject anyone here to unnecessary risks.”


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    About The Author

    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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