NRDC Report: Stronger California Heat Stress Rule Can Guide National Worker Protections Against Deadly Heat
WASHINGTON, D.C. – As excessive heat fueled by climate change continues endangering millions of people nationwide, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) today released a report showing that improvements to California’s 17-year-old outdoor worker heat stress rule—one of the nation’s oldest and most comprehensive—could better protect its workers while also guiding development of federal protections now underway to shield workers from deadly heat.
The report, Feeling the Heat: How California’s Workplace Heat Standards Can Inform Stronger Protections Nationwide, is the first in-depth analysis of compliance with California’s heat stress rule. It points to those who are most affected by heat stress and the need for better enforcement, including stiffer penalties, education for workers, and rules protecting indoor workers so that California can reduce the number of illnesses and deaths resulting from working in hot conditions.
“Every year, tens of thousands of U.S. workers are tragically sickened, injured and even killed by extreme heat—and it’s only getting worse as climate change drives up temperatures,” said Juanita Constible, co-author of the report and senior climate and health advocate in NRDC’s People and Communities program. “Our report shows that even with one of the nation’s most robust workplace heat standards, excessive heat regularly harms workers across hundreds of industries in California.
“Employers aren’t doing enough to educate workers about heat’s dangers so that they can help protect themselves,” Constible added. “And stronger enforcement by employers is needed. California, and the nation, must do better by its workers.”
NRDC’s report is released just after Californians suffered through high temperatures that broke records statewide and during a year where more than 100 million people across the country have been living with heat advisories or warnings several times.
The NRDC report was co-authored by NRDC alum Teniope Adewumi-Gunn. The authors analyzed nearly 500 fatal or catastrophic heat-related incidents from 2005 to 2019 and more than 16,000 heat citations from January 2005 to May 2021 to assess how implementation of the California rule is going.
Key findings in the report, which should help guide development of a national worker heat protection standard underway in Washington, are:
· The California rule only covers outdoor workers. Indoor workers need protections, too.
· Heat-related illnesses and injuries affect agricultural workers most, but also hundreds of other industries. This includes bus and delivery services, janitorial services, home health care, museums, and newspaper publishers.
· Over half the citations, including those for deaths, were issued to employers who failed to train employees effectively, or to keep good training records. Training is low-cost way to ensure workers can respond to heat-related illnesses quickly before they become medical emergencies.
· Hundreds of businesses repeatedly cited for violating the state heat rule skirted higher fines for a “repeat violation.” The case of the United Parcel Service was notable; it had 41 citations for violating the heat standard but only one citation for a repeat violation.
· The state should increase funding for the state agency overseeing workers so it can hire more enforcement staff, including bilingual inspectors.
The report also includes first-person narratives from workers, union members and worker advocacy organizations. Report authors heard that employee experiences with the California heat standard greatly differ, with vulnerable worker populations such as day laborers and farmworkers bearing the brunt of employer inaction.
Day laborers and community workers said employers do not provide shade or sufficient water, so workers drink from dubious garden hoses or go without water. “Workers are dying as a result of employer negligence and not providing the basics, which is drinking water and shade,” said Ephraim Camacho, with California Rural Legal Assistance.
In contrast, union workers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said their employers provide air-conditioned trailers, cool towels, and plenty of clean drinking water.
The report recommends that California strengthen its heat protections to provide better education, enforcement, and stiffer penalties, so that more workers, working outside and inside, can go to work in safer conditions. The report has several recommendations for improving heat protections in California and federally.
“Climate change is making record-breaking and dangerous heat waves like the one Californians just suffered through more and more common,” said Damon Nagami, a senior attorney in NRDC’s Santa Monica office. “We’re in a public health crisis, as extreme heat disproportionately affects our most vulnerable populations, including workers. Our report shows that while we are fortunate here in California to have a heat stress standard that OSHA and other states can look to as a model, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”
Besides California, four states have existing heat safety standards protecting workers, Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington. Heat safety rules are under development in Maryland and Nevada. More here.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has begun developing a national worker heat stress standard, but the agency usually takes seven or more years to complete rulemaking. Rep, Judy Chu and Sen. Alex Padilla, both of California, and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, have introduced legislation to speed up development of a national heat stress standard.
In addition to protecting workers, a national standard can help employers reduce costs from heat-related illnesses. OSHA estimates that a single average case of heat exhaustion can cost an employer more than $79,000 in workers compensation and indirect costs.
“Now Washington must take these lessons learned from California and step up with strong, enforceable federal standards protecting the nation’s millions of workers from deadly heat,” said Constible. “One death or illness from heat is one too many. We have the tools to prevent them. We should use them.”
A blog by Juanita Constible on the report is here: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/juanita-constible/california-lessons-federal-state-workplace-heat-rules
The report “Feeling the Heat: How California’s Workplace Heat Standards Can Inform Stronger Protections Nationwide,” is here: https://www.nrdc.org/resources/feeling-heat-how-californias-workplace-heat-standards-can-inform-stronger-protections
The report’s Spanish language executive summary is here: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/feeling-heat-ca-workplace-heat-standards-es-spanish.pdf
NRDC has compiled a map providing national and state snapshots of existing occupational heat standards, heat standards under development, and active heat standard legislation. Click here: https://www.nrdc.org/resources/occupational-heat-safety-standards-united-states
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.