The Pump Handle

“It’s like an oven in there”: preventing work-related heat illnesses

I spend most of my time these summer days in cool air-conditioned (AC) environments. I feel the 100 degree heat when I’m going from one AC-cooled building to another. For me, the intense central Texas heat is something that is “out there” not “in here.” But I was reminded today of people whose jobs cause them to say “it’s an oven in there.” An acquaintance’s husband works as an auto mechanic. The garage where he works normally has a couple of large fans to circulate the air. Today one of the fans broke down. Temperatures inside the garage matched the outdoor temperature of nearly 100 degrees.

California and Washington are the only states with specific labor laws to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat (here and here, respectively.) Minnesota has a regulation applicable to indoor workplaces. Now California is developing one. Last September, California lawmakers passed a bill which requires Cal/OSHA to develop such a rule. Some industry groups are complaining that the agency is moving too quickly doing so.

The legislation directs the Division of Occupational Safety and Health by January 1, 2019,

“…to propose to the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board for the board’s review and adoption, a heat illness and injury prevention standard applicable to workers working in indoor places of employment.”

Business lobbyist don’t like that Cal/OSHA has already prepared draft language for the rule and asking for public feedback. They expect Cal/OSHA to drag out the process until (not by) January 1, 2019.

On the other hand, workers and safety advocates say those who work in warehouses, industrial laundries, bakeries and elsewhere, have already waited too long for a heat-illness prevention standard. Their campaign for it was solidified in 2011 after Domingo Blancas, 49, suffered heat stroke. Blancas was a temp worker who was assigned to a warehouse job where he worked inside a metal freight container. The temperature inside the container exceeded 100 degrees. His illness led to a three-day hospital stay. There are simple, common sense ways to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths, including restbreaks, cooling areas, hydration, ventilation, training, and acclimatization steps.

Industry groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, California Restaurant Association, and California Retailers Association have lots of other complaints about what Cal/OSHA originally presented as draft language for the regulation. The groups want a rule with a narrow scope which would allow many businesses to wiggle away from it. They also object to provisions which would take into account the workload demands on the body (e.g., heavy lifting, fast-paced physical labor) even though such considerations are included in recommendations by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (here) and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (here).

Labor rights and worker safety groups in California are engaged in and paying close attention to how Cal/OSHA responds to complaints from business groups. What they are already seeing is troubling. Following public comments on a draft rule from February 2017, Cal/OSHA’s May 2017 draft includes exceptions, eliminates considerations of workload, drops extra protections for unacclimatized workers, among other changes in response to business industry complaints. It’s pretty easy to raise objections from air-conditioned offices. Each year thousands of workers suffer heat-related illnesses and at least a dozen die from heat stroke.

I agree with WorkSafe that workers who are most affected by heat hazards should have the biggest say in crafting the standard. They are the experts at working in high heat workplaces and how the hazard could be addressed.

Perhaps Cal/OSHA’s next advisory committee meeting on the standard could take place in a hot warehouse, industrial laundry, or kitchen where heat-illness precautions are not in place.