Indoor Heat Bill Will Save Lives

[UPDATE] Governor Brown signed SB 1167 into law on September 29th. Incredible victory for working people in California! This new law will save lives. Onward!

In 2011, Antonio Ramirez* was working in one of the Inland Empire’s warehouses. Assigned to clean out a metal freight container, Antonio spent several hours emptying and then sweeping the container, which reached an indoor heat level of over 100 degrees. When Antonio presented with symptoms of heat stroke, his employers failed to take any action to help him. Antonio was forced to call his son to take him to the hospital. He was hospitalized for three days due to heat stroke.

Antonio’s employers (a warehouse facility and a temporary staffing agency) had failed to provide  workers with sufficient training about indoor heat. They also failed to take corrective measures within the warehouse to protect employees from heat-related illness. Such measures can include doing things as simple as providing water coolers, ventilation, fans or air-conditioning, and rest breaks. At the very least, the employer could have prevented the severity of Antonio’s illness by taking responsibility to address his heat illness just like they would for any workplace injury.  Protecting workers from this hazard lies at the heart of SB 1167 (Mendoza), proposed legislation to enact a statewide indoor heat standard.

You may think that indoor heat just makes workers uncomfortable, but what happened to Antonio demonstrates how seriously indoor heat can affect someone’s health. Heat related illnesses that can be caused by excessive heat, whether indoors or outdoors, include heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Symptoms include irritability, headaches, dizziness and nausea. If the right steps are not taken, indoor heat can lead to heat stroke and even death.

A 2014 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) underscores the problem of indoor heat. The report examined 20 cases of heat illness or death investigated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and found 7 of them—including 2 deaths—involved indoor heat. Workers new to a workplace or task, both indoor and outdoor, are especially vulnerable; of the 20 cases the CDC studied, 9 occurred among workers who had been on the job 3 days or less.  Four died their first day on the job.

Multiple industries dot the Californian landscape that harbor the threat of indoor heat. These include the warehousing industry where Antonio worked. In the Inland Empire alone, there are roughly 85,000 warehouse workers in the distribution chain that processes the millions of tons of goods that enter the United States every year through ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles. The shipping containers that carry goods destined for retail companies like Amazon, Walmart and Target can reach heat levels over 110 degrees.  Other industries where indoor heat is a serious health problem include laundries, commercial kitchens, canneries, animal processing plants, foundries, brick firing and ceramic plants, rubber products factories, chemical plants, and smelters.

SB 1167 would require California’s Department of Industrial Relations to develop and issue a new standard implementing protections against indoor heat, with input from labor, industry, affected workers, and the public. The bill has already passed the legislature but awaits a signature from Governor Brown.

California already has a rule in place to protect outside workers. A rule to protect inside workers is a common sense protection that will save lives. We urge the Governor to sign the bill into law to protect workers like Antonio from future harm.

* The name of the worker has been changed to protect his identity.

Jora Trang is Managing Attorney for Worksafe, a non-profit advocating for the health and safety of California workers.