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The Heat is On! What California is Doing to Protect Workers From Rising Temperatures

Hot temperatures kill employees every year and climate change is making work more deadly.

PUBLISHED JUN 26, 2023 9:31 P.M.
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The U.S. averages almost 170 heat-related deaths per year, many of them occurring on the job.

The U.S. averages almost 170 heat-related deaths per year, many of them occurring on the job.   Sorn340 Studio Images / Shutterstock   Shutterstock License

After a record-setting heat wave that roasted California and much of the western United States in 2022, meteorologists at the ​​National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are predicting higher than normal temperatures throughout the state once again for the summer of 2023. And that means, sadly, that more people will die. Because no type of weather kills more human beings than heat.

Nonetheless, the state of Texas is about to roll back rules that allow construction workers to take water breaks in order to cool off in the heat, under a new law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature there and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican. 

For those waiting for the federal government to step in, be ready for a long wait. OSHA has no single standard for how to protect workers from heat-related illnesses and deaths.

At least 42 workers died of heat-related causes from 2011 to 2021 in Texas, according to federal data cited in a Texas Tribune report. An official for the Texas AFL-CIO told the Tribune that the union expects the direct result of the new law to be more worker deaths. The Texan cities of Austin and Dallas each have ordinances requiring water breaks every four hours for construction workers. The new state law will overrule those local laws.

Is California doing any better than Texas in helping workers deal with the rising temperatures? What protections does the state offer workers against the life-threatening risks of excessive heat?

Federal Govt Won’t Shield You From Rising Heat

For those waiting for the federal government to step in, be ready for a long wait. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, has no single standard for how to protect workers from heat-related illnesses and deaths, according to a National Public Radio (NPR) and Columbia Journalism Investigations (CJI) report. When workers have died from heat-related causes, the CJI/NPR  investigation found, OSHA often imposes no penalties and will “routinely negotiate with business owners and reduce violations and fines.”

California depends on outdoor workers, who are most susceptible to heat. There are 3.8 million of them or about one of every five workers in the state according to a 2021 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Climate change is only making the risks worse. Average summer temperatures in California are up by 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1896 but more than half of that increase has come since 1970.

By 2040, however, California will see another 2 degree hike if current rates of greenhouse gas emissions are not slowed, according to the Scripps Institution for Oceanography at UC San Diego. Temperatures will rise by 4 degrees by 20170 and 6 degrees by the turn of the next century according to the Scripps report.

On days when temperatures top 90 degrees, workers face up to a 9 percent greater chance of injuries than on days in the 50s and 60s, according to research on 11 million California workers compensation claims.

Los Angeles County alone will see the number of days with thermometer readings over 94 degrees Fahrenheit triple (from an average of seven per year to 21) by 2053, according to a study by the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit climate research group. 

But that’s nothing compared to Imperial County which according to the study will suffer through 116 days of 100-degree (or more) temperatures in 2053. The entire state is getting hotter by the year, the study found.

How Many Workers Die From Hot Weather?

Over a 30-year period from 1993 to 2022, the U.S. averaged 168 heat-related fatalities per year, according to National Weather Service data. That’s 79 more than floods, the second-most deadly weather phenomenon, which claimed 89 lives per year. Tornadoes killed an annual average of 71 over that span.

A number of these heat-related deaths happen at work. While farmworkers, construction workers and other people whose jobs keep them outdoors face potentially deadly conditions, getting a handle on exactly how deadly remains difficult.

The 2021 CJI/NPR analysis of federal data found that “nearly four dozen California workers died from heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses” over the previous 10 years.

But that number, experts agree, is severely undercounted—as are all heat-related deaths. An analysis conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 2021 found that the actual number of deaths from heat exposure is up to six times as high as official estimates. 

The Times examined mortality data from 2010 and 2019, finding that “thousands more people” died on days when the heat reached “extreme” levels than on milder days. As many as 3,900 Californians died from heat-related causes in that time period, according to the Times analysis.

Heat-related deaths can frequently be attributed to other causes. Workplace accidents such as “falling off a ladder or being hit by a moving truck or getting your hand caught in a machine” occur more frequently on hotter days, according to UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Professor R. Jisung Park, who led a 2021 study of worker deaths and injuries due to heat.

On days when temperatures top 90 degrees, workers face up to a 9 percent greater chance of injuries than on days in the 50s and 60s, according to Park’s research which examined about 11 million California workers compensation claims from 2011 to 2018, correlating them with weather data. When the temperature tops 100 degrees, worker injury risk jumps by between 10 and 15 percent compared to moderate days.

After 2005, when California put in place the country’s first Heat Illness Prevention Standard, heat-related injuries to workers dropped, the UCLA Luskin study found.

What Does California Do to Protect Workers From Heat?

The 2005 regulation handed down by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) mandated that employers take some basic steps to help workers in five specific industries cope with exposure to heat. The industries listed in the regulation are agriculture, construction, landscaping, oil and gas extraction, and transportation of agricultural products, construction equipment and other heavy items.

Under the rules, employers in those industries must provide enough fresh water that workers can drink one quart (four eight-ounce glasses) each hour. The rules also said that employers must actively encourage their workers to drink their hourly quart. They must also encourage employees to take 5-minute “cool-down” breaks in the shade—shade which the employers must provide.

Workplace accidents such as “falling off a ladder or being hit by a moving truck or getting your hand caught in a machine” occur more frequently on hotter days, according to a 2021 study.

The only other requirements are that employers provide “heat illness” training, and post a written plan in English as well as any other language spoken by a majority of employees for how they plan to comply with the Cal/OSHA standards.

Since 2005, the state has continued to shore up regulations to protect workers from the effects of heat. In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1167 which directed Cal/OSHA to come up with a new heat standard, this time for indoor employees. Under the new regulations, workers in spaces where the indoor temperature hits 82 degrees must be given water breaks and “cool-down” areas, while the employer must post a plan for heat illness prevention—similar to the outdoor heat protections put in place 11 years earlier.

The 2016 law would affect 1.4 million employees, or about 8 percent of all workers in California, in approximately 190,000 workplaces, according to a report by the RAND Corporation. 

In 2022, Gov, Gavin Newsom signed more bills, this time Assembly Bill 2238, which sets up a system to rank extreme heat events similar to the way hurricanes are ranked by severity, as well as two other bills which set up an “advisory committee” on the effects of extreme heat on workers as well as on business and the state economy, and require health officials to provide guidance and information on how outdoor heat affects workers who are pregnant.

A final bill in the heat legislation package signed by Newsom, Senate Bill 852, authorizes local communities to create a new kind of special district known as a Climate Resilience District. The new districts, which like other special districts would have the power to tax residents as a way of raising revenue, could set up programs not only to deal with the effects of rising heat, but with other consequences of climate change as well.

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