Business & Economy

California regulators get an earful on the dangers of indoor heat

Warehouse worker Luis Martinez tells members of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health that when he spoke up on behalf of a heat-exhausted temp worker, his supervisor threatened to fire him.
Warehouse worker Luis Martinez tells members of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health that when he spoke up on behalf of a heat-exhausted temp worker, his supervisor threatened to fire him.
Andrea Bernstein/KPCC

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California state regulators developing rules to protect people who toil in extremely hot indoor workplaces came to Ontario Thursday for a public hearing. They set up tables in a drab community center, and by 10 a.m. the room was packed. 

Straining to be heard over noisy air conditioning, and without the benefit of a microphone, business leaders and blue-collar workers took turns over the course of nearly five hours telling the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health what they think should be included in the new standards.

While California has rules to protect outdoor workers exposed to hot summer temperatures, the state is only now doing the same thing for indoor workers. Under a law signed by Gov. Brown last fall, regulators have until Jan. 2019 to finalize the rules. Occupational Safety and Health officials are holding meetings around the state to gather input. 

Southern California workers at the hearing (mainly those with blue-collar jobs in warehousing, logistics, clothing manufacturing and restaurants) said they came for the rare opportunity to shape a regulation that could make their daily work more bearable, and even save their lives.

"We have to wear heavy clothing, steel toe boots, gloves," said Bruce Jefferson, describing his work unloading boxes from metal shipping containers near the port. "I go inside that container, and within the first thirty minutes, the top half of my body is soaked."

Jefferson said he wears a thermometer on his waistband, which is how he knows it's typically 20 degrees hotter inside the container than outside it. He's seen a co-worker faint from the heat. Some new workers last only one day, he said, adding that supervisors don't care.

"The simple fact is, 'you don't do the job, we have someone else to replace you,'" he said.

Workers from a variety of industries echoed Jefferson's story. Over and over, they told the board that their supervisors ignore their complaints of heat exhaustion, and that many are afraid to stop working because they have quotas to make and are employed through staffing agencies with no job security.

"Sometimes they treat us like we are robots, or worse, animals," said a garment worker who identified herself to the board only as Blanca.

Speaking through an interpreter, she described rows of seamstresses sweating alongside hot machines and garments that create a "heat bubble" around the workers. Her employer does not provide water, she said, recalling one time a co-worker fainted on the job.

"She was unconscious for 15 to 20 minutes, and when the paramedics came for her, they said it was because of heat stress," she said.

The individual stories stood out in a hearing that was mostly focused on the nitty-gritty details of the draft regulations. 

Workers and business owners mulled questions such as, should an indoor temperature of 80 or 85 degrees trigger rest and water breaks? Some said the state should craft a "heat index" that factors in humidity, ventilation, hot machinery at a work site, the level of physical activity required by the job and the clothing workers are required to wear.

There was discussion about which types of thermometers should be used, and which employees should be allowed to assess indoor temperature. Some brought up the issue of bathroom location, since some factories and warehouses are the size of several football fields.

Business leaders and workers cautioned the board against a one-size-fits all approach, but from different perspectives. Workers worried business owners could find loopholes to avoid complying with the regulations. Representatives from several trade organizations asked the board to consider each industry's needs, rather than one broad standard.

"We think [the standard] needs to be refined so we can comply with it, we can understand it, we can actually do it, and it can be enforced. It is not at that point right now," said Marty Fisher of the California Chamber of Commerce.

"We need to back up ... re-evaluate and figure out how this is going to work in each industry," she said. "Our industries are all so different." 

State Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), who wrote the law requiring the indoor heat standard, wants to fast-track the regulatory process so the heat protections go into effect sooner than the Jan. 2019 deadline.

"My concern this summer is that these workers still don’t have the protections they need," she told KPCC earlier this month. "They’re still going to be working in 120 degrees unventilated or not properly ventilated. They don’t have access to water consistently."