Heat protections for California workers are in limbo after Newsom abandons rules

by Angela Hart and Samantha Young
KFF Health News

SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has abandoned proposed protections for millions of California workers toiling in sweltering warehouses, steamy kitchens, and other dangerously hot workplaces — upending a regulatory process that had been years in the making.

The administration’s eleventh-hour move, which it attributed to the cost of the new regulations, angered workplace safety advocates and state regulators, setting off a mad scramble to implement emergency rules before summer.

But it’s unclear how, when, or if the emergency rules will come down, and whether they’ll be in place in time to protect workers from the intensifying heat.

“It’s the administration’s moral obligation to fix this,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a former state lawmaker and the chief officer of the California Labor Federation, which represents more than 1,300 unions. “There needs to be emergency regulations or legislation quickly, because we can’t stop summer.”

California has had heat standards on the books for outdoor workers since 2005, and indoor workplaces were supposed to be next. The proposed standards would have required work sites to be cooled below 87 degrees Fahrenheit when employees are present and below 82 degrees in places where workers wear protective clothing or are exposed to radiant heat, such as furnaces. Buildings could be cooled with air conditioning, fans, misters, and other methods.

The rules would have allowed workarounds for businesses that couldn’t cool their workplaces sufficiently, such as laundries or restaurant kitchens.

Despite concerns from the administration, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board approved the rules at its March 21 meeting, prompting a tense political standoff between workplace safety advocates and Newsom, the second-term Democratic governor who has sought to elevate his national profile and claim progressive leadership on climate change and worker rights — key platforms for the Democratic Party.

State Department of Finance spokesperson H.D. Palmer said the issue isn’t the state’s ballooning budget deficit — estimated between $38 billion and $73 billion — but a legal requirement to nail down the cost of the rules to the state government.

“It wasn’t, ‘We’re trying to sink these regulations,’” Palmer said.

Palmer said the administration received a murky cost estimate from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation indicating that implementing the standards in its prisons and other facilities could cost billions. The board’s economic analysis, on the other hand, pegged the cost at less than $1 million a year.

“Without our concurrence of the fiscal estimates, those regulations in their latest iteration will not go into effect,” he said.

According to Corrections spokesperson Albert Lundeen, the rules would entail major spending that could require the legislature to fund “extensive capital improvements.” He added that the agency is committed to discussing “how these regulations could be implemented cost-effectively at our institutions to further bolster worker safety.”

Board members argue the state has had years to analyze the cost of the proposed standards, and that it must quickly impose emergency regulations. But it’s not clear how that might happen, whether in days by the administration or months via the state budget process — or another way.

“This is a public health emergency,” said Laura Stock, a board member who is also an expert on workplace safety and health at the University of California-Berkeley.

Newsom spokesperson Erin Mellon defended the move to halt permanent regulations, saying approving them would be “imprudent” without a detailed cost estimate.

“The administration is committed to implementing the indoor heat regulations and ensuring workplace protections,” she said in a statement. “We are exploring all options to put these worker protections in place, including working with the legislature.”

Only Minnesota and Oregon have adopted heat rules for indoor workers. Legislation has stalled in Congress, and even though the Biden administration has initiated the long process of establishing national heat standards for outdoor and indoor work, they may take years to finalize.

Seven workers died in California from indoor heat between 2010 and 2017. Heat stress can lead to heat exhaustion, heatstroke, cardiac arrest, and kidney failure. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, 1,600 heat-related deaths occurred nationally, which is likely an undercount because health care providers are not required to report them. It’s not clear how many of these deaths are related to work, either indoors or outdoors.

The process to adopt California’s indoor head standards started in 2016 and involved years of negotiations with businesses and labor advocates.

Several board members acknowledged that they were frustrated by the administration’s lack of support when they adopted the regulations in March — after their meeting was temporarily halted by angry, chanting warehouse workers — knowing they would not go into effect. Instead, they said, they wanted to amplify pressure on Newsom.

“Every summer is hotter than the last, and workers who aren’t protected are going to suffer heat illness or death,” said Dave Harrison, a board member and powerful union leader with Operating Engineers Local 3. “Our hope was that the vote would be symbolic in sending a message to the state government that, listen, this is important, so we decided to vote on it anyway and put it back into the state’s court.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. n

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