It’s getting hot out there. The planet experienced its hottest year on record in 2023, and temperatures are expected to continue to rise in the years ahead, increasingly threatening the health and lives of workers who labor in extreme heat.

But it’s not just the climate.

It’s also getting politically hot out there, with California worker advocates fighting a battle with state officials over an indoor heat standard, and Florida Republicans taking away the ability of localities to protect their workers from heat-related illness and death.

And while politicians squabble, workers die

Federal OSHA does not have a national heat standard, despite the rising temperatures and growing number of heat-related illnesses and deaths. The feds can only use the General Duty Clause, which is legally burdensome and usually only used after someone has gotten sick or died.

So absent federal rules, states and localities are trying to take action on their own to protect their workers. Oregon and Minnesota also have heat standards protecting indoor workers and California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado have standards protection outdoor workers. Local jurisdictions across the country are also passing ordinances protecting workers from heat.

Wither the Cal/OSHA Indoor Heat Standard?

The Cal/OSHA Standards Board has been working on indoor workplace heat regulations for years, after a 2016 state law required the Board to issue a proposal. An estimated 5.8 million Californians in high-risk heat industries, including indoor and outdoor workers, according to a map of national heat safety standards from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Many of the workers who would be covered by the new standard are  low-wage workers, who are five times more likely to be injured on the job due to heat than high-income workers, according to a 2021 study led by UCLA. And high heat doesn’t just cause heat-related disease, it also raises the danger of other injuries, such as falling off ladders, especially for low-wage construction workers,  such as falling off ladders.

California has had regulations protecting outdoor workers since 2006. The proposed indoor heat standard would require employers to provide cooling through air conditioners, fans or other devices when the indoor temperature or heat index reaches 87 degrees, or 82 degrees in places where workers wear heat restrictive clothing. They would cover conditions in warehouses, shipping centers, schools, kitchens and other workplaces — including state prisons — which often don’t have air conditioning.  Where air conditioning could not address the problem, employers would be required to “adjust work schedules, slow production, allow more breaks or rotate workers through assignments. As a last resort, they’d have to provide personal fans or cooling vests.”

For years, warehouse workers have complained about fainting, headaches, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms they blame on sweltering indoor working conditions in a fast-paced environment with little to no time for breaks. In some cases, the heat has led to workers having heart attacks or organ failure

The rule is particularly important in California — not just because of the high temperatures, but due to the rapid growth of the warehouse industry in the hottest parts of the state.

For years, warehouse workers have complained about fainting, headaches, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms they blame on sweltering indoor working conditions in a fast-paced environment with little to no time for breaks.

In some cases, the heat has led to workers having heart attacks or organ failure, Sheheryar Kaoosji [executive director of the Ontario-based Warehouse Worker Resource Center.] said. “Because workers are pushed to work as fast as they can, they skip taking a break. They don’t drink water,” Kaoosji said. “Often the water is far away from where the workers are.” Workers “also walk in and out of metal shipping containers that are out in the sun a lot of the time during the day,” Kaoosji said.

Some warehouses are air conditioned, but many aren’t, he added. “The heat in those facilities often does build up over time to the point where it’s as hot or even sometimes hotter inside than outdoors.”

The California OSHA Standards Board was expected to approve the new standard at a meeting last month, but the night before the meeting, the heat standard was taken off the agenda after the California Department of Finance rejected the required standardized regulatory impact assessment, allegedly due to last minute information about the potential financial impact of the proposed standard on state agencies — especially state prisons. Prisons in California and across the country are often antiquated and don’t have air-conditioning. Bad for the prisoners, but also bad for corrections officers and other staff.

Reacting to objections from worker advocates at the meeting and calling the Finance Department’s decision “outrageous,” the Board voted anyway, unanimously approving the standard.

“We have a responsibility to the workers of California,” [Board Chair David] Thomas said. The worsening heat risks mean the time pressure is on. “[We have to] make sure that our people, our workers this summer are not subject to the same conditions that they have been in the past,” he said.

Board members acknowledge, however,  that the vote was probably largely symbolic. The California Office of Administrative law, which is the final step of approval for new standards,  is currently reviewing the standard, although the Office would likely not accept the Standard Board’s vote without the Department of Finance’s approval.

We’re in uncharted waters — we just voted for it,” said board member Laura Stock. “We don’t know yet whether that’s going to have any impact whatsoever. We don’t know yet whether there’s going to be any pressure that is able to be put to bear on the Department of Finance.”

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance, said the rules cannot move forward without the agency’s approval. He rejected board members’ assertion that they were “blindsided” by the department’s concerns, and said finance officials did not receive some data related to the regulations until February.

“This was not a policy-driven decision. This was not an arbitrary decision. This was a decision that was driven by our inability to do our fiscal due diligence and evaluate this data late in the process that had a potential impact to the state,” Palmer said.

While the governor did not weigh in on the decision, Palmer said the impact to state agencies could be “in the neighborhood of billions of dollars.”

It is unclear where the state goes from here. According to some Californians knowledgeable about the process, there are now several options. First, the state legislature could add language to current appropriations bills, forcing the standard through. Another option would be to (temporarily) exempt corrections facilities from coverage under the standard. And a final option would be for the Department of Industrial Relations to issue an emergency standard that would take effect quickly, but only be in effect for one year.

It is unclear where the state goes from here. According to some Californians knowledgeable about the process, there are now several options

The problem with all of these options is that they would require the approval of Governor Gavin Newsom who is trying to deal with the state’s historic budget deficit.  It’s not clear at this point where the Governor is on any of these options. Newsom has indicated his general support for the rule, but also cautioned that “it is imprudent to move forward with a cost estimate that is off by billions of dollars.” Newsom has not provided any detail for next steps forward.

Heating Up In Florida…

Meanwhile, Florida’s Republican legislators are welcoming the summer heat by condemning the state’s workers to preventable illness and death from heat-related exposure. Florida legislators passed a law banning local governments from implementing workplace heat standards, starting July 1. Florida is the hottest state — Miami spent a record 46 days above a heat index of 100 degrees last summer.

The Florida law came in response to a campaign in Miami-Dade county, led by WeCount!, a nonprofit that helps immigrant workers in South Florida. The ordinance would have required construction and agriculture employers with five or more employees to provide construction and farm workers access to water and 10-minute breaks in the shade every two hours on days when the heat index hits 90 degrees. It also would have required employers to train workers to recognize the signs of heat illness, administer first aid and call for help in an emergency. The protections were estimated to cover 100,000 workers.

But caving in to business scare tactics predicting economic catastrophe and mass job loss, the County Council reversed its initial approval of the ordinance, voting 8-2 to table the resolution.

“In just a few months, as Florida temperatures soar to triple digits, outdoor workers will face increasingly dangerous conditions,” said Esteban Wood, the policy director at WeCount!… “Workers will suffer heat stroke, businesses will lose out on billions in lost worker productivity, and local emergency rooms will become overwhelmed with heat related hospitalizations.”

“Make no mistake: when given the choice, Republican lawmakers chose to protect corporate profits over everyday people,” — Esteban Wood, WeCount! Policy Director  

Even the Miami-Dade County reversal wasn’t enough assurance for the state legislature Not willing to rely on the “wisdom” of local authorities, the state legislature acted boldly to remove any possibility of local democracy that might actually protect working people.

The Republican-controlled Florida House voted 78-36 to pass House bill 433 and Senate voted 28-11, along party lines, to pass Senate Bill 1492. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has not yet signed the bill. But I’m not holding my breath for him to suddenly become a champion of working people. Nevertheless, 88 environmental, faith and progressive groups sent letters calling on DeSantis to veto the legislation.

As Wood said, “Make no mistake: when given the choice, Republican lawmakers chose to protect corporate profits over everyday people,”

What’s the problem for Republicans and their business supporters? Providing water, rest and shade to outdoor workers will allegedly kill the agricultural and construction industry in Florida. The sky will fall. The state will sink beneath the waves.

Anyway, legislators say, the right thing to do is to wait for state or federal regulations instead of a hodge-podge of local ordinances.

But, of course, the Republican controlled Florida legislature will never pass any kind of law to protect workers. And the federal standard is likely years from completion. (And how much you want to bet that when the federal standard nears completion, Florida officials will oppose a national standard as well?)

Copying Texas

The Florida bill follows passage of the “Death Star” bill in Texas which also prohibited local jurisdictions from passing ordinances to protect workers against heat-related illness — including ordinances in Dallas and Austin that mandate water and rest breaks to protect construction workers from heat related illness and death.

It’s not easy being the worst Governor in the United States, and the competition is fierce between Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for who can kill the most workers in the shortest period of time. DeSantis seems to be leading the pack. In addition to Florida’s own Death Star bill, another bill on the Governor’s desk would ban offshore wind energy, relax regulations on natural gas pipelines, and delete the majority of mentions of climate change from existing state laws.

Florida: The State Where Woke and Workers Go To Die

Stay tuned this summer to see which Governor wins.

And which workers lose.



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