While the federal government is mulling outdoor heat protections, California is nearing the finish line on a heat illness regulation for indoor work spaces.

Prescribing specific protocols based on room temperature, however, is turning out to be much more complex than protecting workers from heat waves. The proposal is designed to address a steady growth in warehouses in the Inland Empire, but the implications for packing plants, processors and wineries are still unfolding.

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, has taken seven years to get to this milestone, after the pandemic created new delays and consumed the agency’s limited staff resources to focus on COVID-19 workplace protections. The standards board governing Cal/OSHA plans to adopt the rulemaking in early February of 2024. Last week stakeholders and board members shared their concerns on the initial proposal, which is largely based on the state’s existing outdoor heat illness prevention standard.

The regulation would require employers to provide water, breaks and cooldown rooms when temperatures hit a certain threshold. Labor advocates commended the progress in developing the draft plan but called for more aggressive measures, such as lowering the threshold, and to protect workers starting this summer, rather than waiting another year. They argued the state continues to get hotter due to climate change and the most vulnerable Californians are at risk.

“God only knows how many workers have suffered and died because we've taken this long,” said Mitch Steiger, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. “But we've got an opportunity here to do the right thing relatively soon.”

Temperatures at a Spreckels Sugar Co. factory in Imperial County can rise to 120 degrees, creating dangerous conditions for workers performing physically intensive labor, according to Jassy Grewal, legislative director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council.

“Workers have waited years for an indoor heat illness standard and cannot wait any longer,” said Grewal.

Several board members agreed with labor interests and urged staff to examine ways to enforce any existing protections through the injury and illness prevention plans California employers already implement.

Bryan LittleBryan Little, California Farm Bureau

“It's very important to hear the impact [from stakeholders] of not having an indoor heat standard and how important it is for us to pass an indoor heat standard as soon as possible,” said board member Barbara Burgel, an occupational health consultant and professor emeritus at UC San Francisco.

Alice Berliner, who directs the worker health and safety program at the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, told the board the issues extend beyond the workplace. Her group published the results of a farmworker health survey in January showing that one in three respondents reported problems keeping their house cool. Hotter days correlate to increased injury rates, along with overall health outcomes and worker productivity.

“When temperatures exceed 80 degrees, workers need opportunities to cool down, to rest and drink clean drinking water,” said Berliner.

Employers, on the other hand, raised alarms over the feasibility of the proposed standards. Robert Moutrie, a policy advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce, argued that creating cooldown areas at restaurants and other establishments that rent space would be challenging, since the operators do not have full control over the facilities.

“Restaurants have a limited amount of physical space,” explained Katie Davey, senior legislative director for the California Restaurant Association. “Extremely little, if any, is not already being utilized to the kitchen or for customer dining.”

The regulation and its mandates are too complex for restaurants to be able to clearly understand, according to Davey. She also worried the rulemaking would conflict with state codes that require restaurants to heat eggs, meat, poultry and fish to certain temperatures to ensure food safety and to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Moutrie and several other trade groups pressed for a “temporal trigger,” in which the regulation would take effect after the temperature hits the threshold for a given amount of time, such as 10 minutes. Cal/OSHA’s smoke rule has a similar provision for brief stints in poor outdoor air quality. With the current proposal, the regulation is triggered the instant a room hits 82 degrees, with further protections at 87 degrees. Moutrie said that would force workers to wait outside a hot car while the air conditioning cooled it down and to avoid quick trips to a hot shed.

The California Nurses Association pushed back on the concept of a temporal control, noting that heat stroke can develop even within 10 minutes.

Siding with Moutrie, California Farm Bureau Labor Affairs Director Bryan Little questioned why the proposal considers vehicles as indoor workplaces, noting it encompasses tractors and farm trucks. Those vehicles, along with many agricultural practices, are already covered under the state’s outdoor heat standard.

“The new regulation’s definition of indoors is so broad as to raise issues about employees who, in the course of their workday, pass from indoor to outdoor spaces and back again,” said Little.

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Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, said the scope would extend to thousands of storage container units that workers spend little time in.

The regulation would layer on additional requirements for training, record keeping and temperature monitoring and will “almost certainly cause confusion,” according to Little. He also urged the agency to clarify that shaded areas used for rest breaks under existing requirements should not be considered indoor spaces under the new regulation.

“It’s duplicative to have two standards for the same purpose apply to the same employee, in the same workplace, in the same work shift,” added Michael Miiller, director of government relations for the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

Miiller argued that such a broad-based approach would have unintended consequences.

“It's almost impossible to address all the issues and every occupation and every industry covered by this regulation,” he said, referring to concerns from healthcare providers that lowering room temperatures would harm burn victims who have lost the ability to self-regulate their body temperature.

Agency staff took the many comments under consideration and will revise the proposal in the coming months before presenting a final draft for board approval in February. Other government bodies are looking to ramp up the state’s heat illness protections as well.

Last year Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill to strengthen both the outdoor heat standard and smoke protections by 2026. Other bills signed into law set new medical guidelines for treating heat exposure and tasked CalEPA with developing a ranking system for extreme heat events. The California Natural Resources Agency has also adopted an extreme heat action plan to protect workers and communities while expanding education and outreach efforts. It includes evaluating Cal/OSHA’s outdoor heat standard to “determine its effectiveness and whether revisions are necessary.”

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