State mulls rules to protect overheated indoor workers

Jose (foreground), who asked that his last name be withheld because he fears losing his job, talks with Veronica Alvarado, an advocate with the Warehouse Workers Resource Center.
Jose (foreground), who asked that his last name be withheld because he fears losing his job, talks with Veronica Alvarado, an advocate with the Warehouse Workers Resource Center. Andrea Bernstein/KPCC

When it comes to working in the heat, California workers don't share the same protections. State law requires most employers to give their outdoor workers shade, water and rest breaks when the temperature surpasses 95 degrees.

Workers exposed to indoor heat (like those working in restaurant kitchens and industrial warehouses) will be getting their own set of protections, but they may have to brave two more summers before the rules are in place.

Under a state law passed last year, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health has until Jan. 1, 2019 to set an indoor occupational heat standard

Regulators are hosting a public hearing Tuesday to gather feedback on possible protections. The session is in Ontario, near the heart of Southern California's burgeoning logistics industry.

Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino) says she wrote the indoor heat standards legislation after hearing numerous stories of local warehouse workers suffering heat-related illnesses.

"Living in the Inland Empire, we are ground zero for warehouses," she said. "In the Inland Empire, we see many many triple-digit days, and these warehouses get very, very hot, up to 120 degrees. And the ventilation, in many cases, is very poor."

Leyva is trying to fast-track the regulatory process so that the heat protections go into effect sooner than 2019. She's authored a separate bill, SB 772, which would exempt occupational safety laws from a required analysis by the state's Department of Finance. 

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

Jose, who asked that his last name be withheld because he fears losing his job, said he's been unloading shipping containers at logistics centers in the Inland Empire for the past seven years. He's come to dread the 100-degree summer days when the metal containers arrive on the backs of big rigs and then bake in the sun as workers scurry to unpack them.

The temperature inside the containers is much higher than it is outside, said Jose.

The intense heat makes workers feel "weak .. like you have a fever," he said, adding that newly-hired employees often walk off the job within hours of starting, finding the heat too much to bear.

His coworkers get frequent headaches, and some faint from the heat, said Jose.

When asked why workers don't stop for water breaks, he said it's too time consuming – those who slow down won't meet their daily quota. Many of the lowest-wage workers - hired by staffing agencies - are considered "temps" despite working months or years at the same facilities. Those who don't meet their daily quota or complain about the heat run the risk of getting laid off, said Jose.

Leyva said she has heard similar stories over the years.

"If you’re a temporary worker you are scared to death of losing your job, so you are going to come to work and keep working in these conditions because it is the only job you have," she said.

The Warehouse Workers Resource Center, an advocacy group in Ontario, worked with Leyva to develop the indoor heat legislation. The group has been organizing workers in preparation for Tuesday's hearing.

"Indoor heat is a hidden threat that workers face in the warehouses of California but also in many other sectors of our economy," said Sheheryar Kaoosji, one of the group's organizers. "Workers who toil in heat are less productive, more likely to be injured or have accidents.  We believe that a clear, enforceable standard will save lives, reduce injuries and benefit business."

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