California workers must wait even longer for indoor heat protections

A warehouse worker sorts packages at an Amazon fulfillment center on Nov. 11, 2010. (Photo by Ross D. Franklin, AP Photo)

California’s workplace safety agency today again delayed adopting regulations to protect workers from indoor heat, throwing into question the future of a rule that was already five years late, and that workers had begged to be made official by this summer. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board had been set to vote on the standard, which has been in development since 2017, at a meeting this morning in San Diego. But in a last-minute move, state officials on Wednesday evening told workers’ advocates that they would pull the rule from the agenda with little explanation, the advocates said. 

Stephen Knight, executive director of the advocacy group Worksafe, said he got a call from a state official, whose department Knight did not disclose, explaining that there was “late objection from the Department of Finance to the description of the cost.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Standards Board Chairperson Dave Thomas announced the rule “has been pulled.” He encouraged those who came to comment on the rule to still do so.

“We don’t really have an explanation as to why, and it certainly wasn’t us,” he said. 

The move infuriated labor groups, and significantly reduces the chances a rule is implemented this summer, unless either the board or state lawmakers take emergency action.

As CalMatters reported last month, the Legislature had set a 2019 deadline when it passed a law requiring indoor workplace heat protections in 2016. 

“The indoor workers in California are facing hotter and hotter temperatures every year and clearly don’t have any protections,” Sheheryar Kasooij, executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, said before the meeting. “It seems like the state is at a point where that seems to be just fine with them.”

California administrative law gives regulatory agencies such as the workplace standards board one year to approve new rules after they formally propose them. That deadline for indoor heat is March 31. After that, the standards board would have to re-propose the rule and hold another public hearing and 45-day comment period before taking a vote. 

The proposed rule was first drafted by Cal/OSHA in 2017 before going to the independent standards board for official rulemaking in 2019. After the board finally officially proposed the rule in March 2023 and held the public hearing, it also revised the rule three more times. 

“How does a state agency withdraw a rule the day before the vote, that’s 10 years in the making, and backed by state legislation?” Knight asked. “We’re laying this at the feet of the governor. This is an enormous blow to Newsom’s claim to climate change leadership.”

The proposed rule would require warehouses, factories, restaurants and other workplaces to cool workplaces down if the temperature reaches 87 degrees. If installing air conditioning isn’t feasible, employers would be required to take other measures such as adjusting schedules, allowing longer breaks or providing personal fans or cooling vests.

The rule has been subject to wide-ranging employer pushback and a lengthy economic impact analysis.

The COVID-19 pandemic diverted attention from an understaffed state labor agency, CalMatters reported last month

Business groups said many of the requirements would be costly and impractical, and that some provisions conflicted with the state’s nearly 20-year-old outdoor heat rules.

This morning, it was still unclear why the rule was again delayed so close to its final approval. Speaking at the board meeting, Mitch Steiger, legislative representative of the California Federation of Teachers, said advocates were told by the administration the reason was “compliance costs tied to an unspecified state agency.”

Debbie Fontaine holds a heat and humidity index device that some workers wear when working at the Rite Aid warehouse in Lancaster, California, on July 11, 2021. Workers have to take a break if the device reaches 90 degrees. (GENARO MOLINA/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Spokespersons for the Department of Finance, the Department of Industrial Relations (which houses the standards board and Cal/OSHA) did not return requests for comment this morning. Newsom’s office declined to respond to inquiries about whether the delay is related to the state budget deficit, directing questions to the finance department. 

Steiger said any concerns about the costs were already addressed in an economic impact report the industrial relations department prepared between 2020 and 2021, and which the finance department reviewed for years afterward. 

“It doesn’t say much about how much we value the lives and the health of those workers who suffered during those years that the (analysis) was being developed, that all of a sudden at the very end of the process, the (analysis) is just yanked away,” Steiger said. “Because why? Because some employer doesn’t want to comply with the law.”

The rule was on the board’s agenda for at least a week. Even employers’ groups, speaking to CalMatters in February with complaints about the proposed rule, said they expected that it would be approved. 

Last month, the finance department was reviewing the industrial relations department final economic impact statement in preparation for the rule’s approval, Finance spokesperson H.D. Palmer said at the time. 

Legislators passed the 2016 law calling for an indoor heat rule in response to reports of workers falling ill in what was a newly booming warehouse industry in southern California’s Inland Empire. 

Many warehouses are not air conditioned, and some employees carry packages in and out of metal shipping containers that workers say easily surpass 100 degrees on warm days. But workers in many industries have advocated for heat protections in California for decades. In 2005, the state required outdoor heat protections after the deaths of four farmworkers.

Excessive heat can cause nausea, vomiting, fainting and, in the most extreme cases, heat stroke leading to organ damage or death. In California, seven workers died from indoor heat from 2010 through 2017, during what was the hottest decade on record, while about 200 a year claimed injuries from indoor heat through the workers’ compensation system. These figures are considered by experts to be undercounts because not all workers make those reports.  

In recent years, summer temperatures across southern California have continued to break historical records. 

Lorena Gonzalez, chief officer of the California Labor Federation, called the delay “shameful.”

“The state’s failure to take action means workers in restaurants, schools, manufacturing, hospitals and warehouses continue suffering each day they go without any real, enforceable protections from indoor heat exposure,” she said in a statement.

Leave a Reply

The Exedra comments section is an essential part of the site. The goal of our comments policy is to help ensure it is a vibrant yet civil space. To participate, we ask that Exedra commenters please provide a first and last name. Please note that comments expressing congratulations or condolences may be published without full names. (View our full Comments Policy.)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *