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New rules will protect California workers from dangerous heat indoors

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California’s Occupational Health and Safety (Cal/OSHA) Standards Board voted Thursday afternoon to implement rules protecting indoor workers from extreme heat.

California now joins just a few other states, including Oregon and Minnesota, to protect people who work indoors in facilities like warehouses, restaurants and refineries. The state estimates the new rule will apply to about 1.4 million people who work indoors in conditions that can easily become dangerously hot.

“It’s an urgent public health crisis, the impact of heat on health, as we’re seeing across the country,” says Laura Stock, a former Cal/OSHA Standards Board member and the director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley. “There was an urgent need for this regulation. It’s in line with what we already have in California, which is the recognition that heat is a life-threatening exposure hazard.”

Now, when indoor temperatures hit 82 degrees Fahrenheit, employers will be required to provide employees with cool places to take breaks. Above 87 degrees, they’ll need to change how people work. That could mean shifting work activities to cooler times of the day, for example, or cooling down workspaces using tools like fans or air conditioning.

The rule could be implemented by early August, says Eric Berg, Cal/OSHA’s deputy chief of health and research and standards.

That can’t come quickly enough for workers facing dangerously hot weather already, says Tim Shadix, legal director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, a worker advocacy group based in Southern California.

“In the worst places we’ve seen, you know, in the summer, those workplaces, they’re kind of like a tin can baking in the sun,” Shadix says. “We hope there are no further delays and employees and employers are informed of these new protections before summer’s end.”

Early June saw record-breaking temperatures across the state, well above 100 degrees in some inland regions home to thousands of warehouses. Scientists from the World Weather Attribution group recently determined that June’s heat wave was longer, hotter and 35 times more likely to occur than in a world without human-caused climate change.

Sarah Fee used to work in warehouses in the Inland Empire, in Southern California. Outdoor temperatures regularly hover in the 90s or above during the summer, and many warehouses are as hot, or sometimes hotter, than the outdoors.

“I would leave work, my shirt would be soaked in sweat, and I would be absolutely nauseous,” she says. “Fans weren’t enough.”

A spotty patchwork of heat rules nationwide

There are no national rules protecting workers, outdoors or indoors, from dangerous heat. Employers are required to provide workplaces “free from recognized hazards” under the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s General Duty clause, including heat, but worker advocates point out that the guidelines on heat-specific risk are challenging to enforce and have been used infrequently.

In the absence of robust federal guidance, individual cities like Phoenix, Ariz., and five states, including Oregon, Washington and Minnesota, have created their own regulations that give outdoor workers, like farmworkers or construction workers, rights to water breaks and access to shade when temperatures soar.

But others have explicitly blocked such rules. Earlier this year, Miami-Dade County in Florida was on the cusp of proposing a local rule to address heat risk for outdoor laborers. But Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a state law banning cities or counties from making their own heat rules.

OSHA has been developing a national-scale heat rule that would protect both indoor and outdoor workers, but the process could take years. A draft was recently sent to the White House for review.

California’s adoption of the indoor heat rule is “a really an important step, and a signal to other states and employers that this is really something to pay attention to,” says Jill Rosenthal, the director of public health policy at the Center for American Progress. “We hope to see that more states will take up these kinds of policies and again, for health reasons and also for economic reasons.”

In the meantime, workers in California and beyond are being hurt, and sometimes dying, from heat exposure.

A long road to indoor heat protection

In 2016, California lawmakers approved a bill tasking Cal/OSHA with creating a rule to protect people who worked indoors from heat exposure — a companion to the state’s 2005 law protecting outdoor workers. The state was supposed to create the rule by 2019, but conflict over its scope slowed the rule’s progress for years. The debates were over which industries the protections would cover, what actions would need to be taken after certain temperatures were reached and what businesses would be required to actively cool workplaces that were too hot.

The text for the rule was finalized earlier this year. The standards board was set to vote on it in March 2024, but the night before the vote, the board was informed that California’s Department of Finance had raised concerns about the cost to the state for complying with the rule — particularly about the effort required to get the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) into compliance. The department operates more than 30 adult state-owned facilities across the state, most of which are cooled by fans or evaporative coolers, not air conditioning.

At the March meeting, board members expressed their frustration with the last-minute delay and took a symbolic vote to approve the rule anyway.

The new version of the rule that passed Thursday now excludes CDCR. The Standards Board says it will work on developing a separate pathway to address those workers’ safety. But AnaStacia Nicol Wright, with the worker rights organization WorkSafe, worries the process could drag out, putting thousands of employees — and prisoners — at risk for another summer, or more. “Incarcerated workers are also employees under California labor code,” she said at the meeting. “These workers are at risk of heat exhaustion and dehydration, due to working in often archaic, poorly ventilated buildings with little protection from temperatures.”

Some employer groups still object to components of the rule. Rob Moutrie, from the California Chamber of Commerce, noted that many small businesses that rent their facilities don’t control their own infrastructure, making it difficult or impossible to provide the cool-down spaces the new rule requires.

Bryan Little, director of labor affairs with the California Farm Bureau, pointed out that groups like his had similar concerns to Corrections about the potentially prohibitive costs of installing and using “engineering controls,” like air conditioning, to cool workplaces. “As an employer advocate, I wonder what it takes to get heard,” he said in the meeting.

The rule could be in place by late summer. The sooner, the better, says Stock.

“I think the urgency of this is really evident,” she says. “The impact of climate change on temperature is just exacerbating the exposure, and temperatures are higher for more months.”

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