We Can Do More to Protect Workers from High Heat

by AnaStacia Nicol Wright

Heat illness is a serious concern for California and its workers. While once known for its year-round pleasant weather, the state’s summer temperatures have been rapidly increasing, along with the rest of the world’s temperatures, in the face of global warming. Outdoor heat protections have been in place for many years, and advocates have been pushing for similar indoor heat protections to address this growing concern. As of this writing, in August 2023, the agencies are still working on it, but real progress is finally being made.

High heat temperatures pose a serious threat to workers. What’s worse is that lower income workers are at least five times more likely to be hurt on the job due to heat than higher income workers.

In addition to high heat being a workplace hazard in itself, it also leads to a variety of workplace injuries. A 2021 study of 18 years of California workers’ compensation records found that the risk of all workplace injuries was five to seven percent higher when the temperature was between 85 and 90 degrees. When temperatures were over 100 degrees, the overall risk of injuries was 10 to 15 percent greater. Evidence continues to mount that California is still trending toward heat extremes. And scientists predict ever-increasing temperatures leading to additional workplaces hazards caused by heat.

Heat illness occurs when the body cannot properly regulate its internal temperature by sweating. Once sweat becomes insufficient, your internal temperature begins to rise. This presents major problems because human beings need to maintain their internal body temperature within a very narrow range of a few degrees above or below 98.6° F. The inability to do so causes important functions and organs to shut down. Even when it’s sufficient to maintain functional temperatures, prolonged sweating can deplete the body of necessary water and minerals and cause dehydration. This may lead a person’s muscles to stop working properly and begin to spasm or cramp, and cause the body and brain to become tired or confused. All of these symptoms can create a dangerous work environment for affected employees.

Cal/OSHA has repeatedly revised the standard since its initial draft in February 2017. The Division brought forward a proposal for a public hearing before the Standards Board in May 2023 and is now in the last stages of finalizing the rule for adoption. While the rule is groundbreaking and hits many major points of worker safety-related concerns, it still falls short of being strong on worker protections. More importantly, it’s yet to be implemented.

So what does the Cal/OSHA heat standard propose to do? At a high level, the proposed standard would obligate employers to think ahead and to enact certain heat protective measures once indoor temperatures reach certain points. The standard creates a two-tiered system of protections, with the overall standard protections kicking in at 82 degrees when employees are present, and a series of additional protections being triggered if temperatures reach 87 degrees.

Some of the provisions that must be in place when indoor temperatures reach 82 degrees:

  • Employees must have access to potable water
  • Cool-down areas must be made available to employees
  • Employers must implement and follow certain emergency procedures
  • New employees must go through an acclimation process to help them adjust to the temperatures
  • Employees must be trained on safety rules and procedures

These provisions are imperative for preventing heat illness and injury. Likewise, requiring employers to be prepared for the worst case scenario with emergency response procedures is vital to mitigate heat illness that occurs despite precautions. These simple requirements will save lives.

Nonetheless, the protections fail to go far enough.

For example, technical experts with the ACGIH recommend implementing general controls at 75.2°F WBGT (“WetBulb Globe Temperature”) for employees performing heavy work, and at 71.6°F WBGT for employees performing moderate work while wearing double-layer woven clothing. Yet despite this strong evidence, the proposed indoor heat standard begins implementation at 82°F.

Another shortcoming is that the current proposal leaves the determination of when or whether to take a cool-down break to the workers. This can lead to workers not feeling empowered to or comfortable requesting a break, or not requesting a break due to work quota demands or pressure or for fear of retaliation from managers or other employees, etc. If regulators are serious about ensuring that workers take needed breaks, they write specific rest periods into the rules.

The unfortunate choice for worker advocates is between pushing back against this less-than-adequate standard or accepting it in order to see some protections in place for workers by next summer and beyond.

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