Editor’s note: This story is republished from CalMatters, a public interest news outlet covering the important issues affecting all of California.
Do you have an experience with heat waves at work that you’d like to share? Get in touch with us at [email protected]. We’ve also included more information about how to stay safe during heat waves at the bottom of this article.
With more heat waves expected this summer, California officials are trying to assess the long-term economic impact on workers and businesses — and what more can be done to protect workers bearing the brunt of extreme temperatures.
Although California is one of the few states with heat standards protecting outdoor workers, advocates and workers say enforcement is still a struggle. Meanwhile the state has been trying for years to create indoor workplace heat rules.
A 2021 study of California worker compensation data by a left-leaning economic research nonprofit shows hot days lead to increased workplace accidents across California. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth study estimates hot temperatures have caused at least 360,000 workplace injuries in California from 2001 to 2018, or about 20,000 injuries a year.
The welfare impacts associated with heat-related workplace injuries may be on the order of $525 million to $875 million per year in California.
Researchers examined California workers compensation data and tracked daily temperatures down to the zip code. They compared the number of worker injuries and illnesses on 85-to-105-degree days to days when temperatures hovered around 60 degrees.
A new state advisory committee is set to use this data as a roadmap to tackle hot workplace issues. The group of state agency staffers and scholars will examine persistent problems with underreported heat-related illness and injuries, as well as gaps in data collection and the financial toll on workers and businesses when temperatures rise and production falls.
Young workers at risk
A day above 100 degrees can lead to a 10-15% increase in same-day injuries on the job, the study says, with injuries hitting low-wage workers hardest. And recovering from a heat-related injury or illness costs the average worker $35,000, including health care and long-term wage impact.
“This implies that the welfare impacts associated with heat-related workplace injuries may be on the order of $525 million to $875 million per year in California alone,” the study authors wrote.
The study says workplace injuries include incidents not usually linked to heat, such as falling from heights, getting struck by a vehicle or mishandling dangerous machinery. Research links high temperatures to reduced cognitive performance and decision-making.
The lead author of the study, University of Pennsylvania professor R. Jisung Park, is a member of the advisor committee. He and his coauthors found that low-wage workers, especially young men, face the greatest risks of heat injuries, even in mostly-indoor workplaces like restaurants or warehouses.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/GKazD/3/
The state’s advisory committee met for the first time at the end of June. Its mandate is part of a package of heat-related legislation passed last year.
Gov. Gavin Newsom in September signed several bills creating the first extreme heat warning and ranking system in the nation, directing the California Department of Public Health to study the impact of extreme heat on pregnant workers and encouraging local governments to invest in protections against extreme heat and other climate effects.
“There are certain sectors that are going to be heavily influenced of course, including food production,” said Daniel Sumner, an advisory committee member who is an agricultural and labor economist at UC Davis. “I think we’d be remiss not to try to think through impacts that directly affect workers’ lower productivity, raise danger for workers, and as a consequence raise food prices.”
Are California workers protected from heat?
California is one of a few states with laws that mandate employers provide water breaks, shade and rest for outdoor workers once temperatures reach certain levels.
The state implemented its outdoor heat standard in 2005, after several farmworkers – three in Kern County and one in Fresno County – died due to heat exposure. After the 2008 death of a pregnant teen working in a Central Valley vineyard drew national outrage, state officials frantically tried to strengthen and enforce the heat protections.
The Washington Center study found occupational heat-related injuries in California declined by about 30 percent since the standards took effect in 2005.
There still are no heat-related federal workplace protections, even for outdoor workers, although the Occupational Health and Safety Administration announced two years ago it was developing heat rules for outdoor and indoor workers.
There’s currently little relief for California’s indoor workers. The state has been considering proposals for heat rules for employees in indoor settings like restaurants or warehouses for nearly seven years, missing a 2019 deadline the Legislature set.
Last summer, a 24-year-old United Parcel Service driver died after collapsing from the heat during deliveries in Pasadena.
The 340,000-strong union representing the UPS workers has been seeking heat rules that would cover its California members. The union reached a “historic” contract agreement with the company July 25 after threatening a strike, securing a deal with higher wages and more heat protections.
Jassy Grewal, a lobbyist for the United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council and a member of the state’s heat advisory committee, said workers in high-intensity environments, or those who don’t have a cool place at home, are especially vulnerable without indoor heat rules.
“What type of pressures from employers, like work quotas, contribute to heat-related illness,” Grewal asked during the first committee meeting. “And how does the intensity of work and how physically demanding it is relate to the impact of heat exposure while at work and while not at work?”
Gaps in job protections
Unions and worker advocates have sued the state in the past to enforce heat-related regulations, and they say the state needs to hold employers accountable.
Advocacy groups warn that despite progress, the greatest risk to workers lies with the state’s troubled enforcement record.
Some experts say it’s as simple as better outreach, informing workers about heat risks and their rights.
“It’s all implementation and ensuring that these workers actually get the benefits of these laws,” said Michael Méndez, environmental policy professor at UC Irvine, “and having a culturally and linguistically appropriate messaging on the risk and severity of these heat waves.
“I think for any population it’s confusing to understand how our climate is changing and how much risk they could have. So ensuring that we have trusted messengers and doing it in a culturally and linguistically appropriate way matters.”
“We expect state agencies to be out in full strength across California to make sure employers are being compliant with the state heat rules. Heat is still a deadly hazard.”ANTONIO DE LOERA-BRUST, UFW SPOKESPERSON
The United Farm Workers sued the Cal/OSHA in 2012 to compel the state to enforce heat rules for farmworkers. In 2015 the state settled a suit the union brought on behalf of five farmworkers who alleged CalOSHA was systematically neglecting its duty to enforce the 2005 law.
UFW spokesperson Antonio de Loera-Brust told CalMatters “people died to win” California’s enforcement standards.
“We expect state agencies to be out in full strength across California to make sure employers are being compliant with the state heat rules,” De Loera-Brust said. “Heat is still a deadly hazard.”
A February study on California farmworker health and safety by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center found that only a third of farm laborers could recognize the symptoms of a heat-related illness.
Only half of the roughly 1,500 farmworkers surveyed said their employers always provide shade mandated by California law when it hits 80 degrees, while a quarter said their employers never or rarely provide the required shade.
The study, which surveyed farmworkers in six languages, also found:
- About 22% of farmworkers said their employer “never” monitors for heat illness. A slightly higher percentage in the Imperial Valley, where scorching temperatures are common, said the same.
- 82% of farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley said they have received heat related illness training.
- About 43% of farmworkers statewide, including two-thirds of Central Coast farmworkers, said their employers never had a written heat illness protection plan.
Some farm employers still don’t comply with state rules about providing water, shade and rest, the survey shows.
- 55% of farmworkers across the state said their employers always monitored the temperature on hot days — 76% said it in the Imperial Valley, but 46% did in Napa Valley and Sonoma areas.
- 75% of farmworkers said their employers provide clean drinking water every time.
- Barely half of farmworkers reported their employers always provide a 10-minute cool down rest, while 21% said their employers “never” did.
Alice Berliner, worker health and safety program director at the community and labor center, said it’s clear employers some workers aren’t getting safety information or training in Spanish when they need it.
“We know heat-related deaths are going up,” she said. “If we want to prevent future deaths from happening, we really need to ensure workers are protected at work.”
State officials taking preventive measures, such as conducting heat sweeps ahead of heat waves, has helped, she added.
What will the state committee do?
Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, who authored legislation creating the advisory committee last year, called the panel of 13 a “solid first step.” He said he will work with the Legislature to do more for workers.
“Climate change is accelerating, and extreme heat and heat-related illnesses are on the rise,” the Salinas Democrat said in a statement. “California is committed to protecting workers’ health and quality of life during extreme heat waves.”
Despite near-universal consensus among state officials and advocates that heat reform work is urgent, and despite recent record shattering temperatures, the committee has been given a 2026 deadline to report results to the Legislature.
The committee is set to meet quarterly. The next session is September 19. Members indicated they’ll likely commission a study to guide the committee’s work.
“I have no doubt the work this committee will do will save lives,” said Cal/OSHA chief Jeff Killip at the meeting.
Tips from the National Weather Service about heat waves:
- Slow down. Reduce, eliminate or reschedule strenuous activities until the coolest time of the day. Those particularly vulnerable to heat such as children, infants, older adults (especially those who have preexisting diseases, take certain medications, living alone or with limited mobility), those with chronic medical conditions, and pregnant women should stay in the coolest available place, not necessarily indoors.
- Dress for summer. Wear lightweight, loose fitting, light-colored clothing to reflect heat and sunlight.
- Minimize direct exposure to the sun. Sunburn reduces your body’s ability to dissipate heat.
Eating and Drinking
- Eat light, cool, easy-to-digest foods such as fruit or salads. If you pack food, put it in a cooler or carry an ice pack. Don’t leave it sitting in the sun. Meats and dairy products can spoil quickly in hot weather.
- Drink plenty of water (not very cold), non-alcoholic and decaffeinated fluids, even if you don’t feel thirsty. If you are on a fluid-restricted diet or have a problem with fluid retention, consult a physician before increasing consumption of fluids.
- Do not take salt tablets unless specified by a physician.
- Use air conditioners or spend time in air-conditioned locations such as malls and libraries.
- Use portable electric fans to exhaust hot air from rooms or draw in cooler air.
- Do not direct the flow of portable electric fans toward yourself when room temperature is hotter than 90°F. The dry blowing air will dehydrate you faster, endangering your health.
- Take a cool bath or shower.
Check on Others
- Check on older, sick, or frail people who may need help responding to the heat. Each year, dozens of children and untold numbers of pets left in parked vehicles die from hyperthermia. Keep your children, disabled adults, and pets safe during tumultuous heat waves.
- Don’t leave valuable electronic equipment, such as cell phones and GPS units, sitting in hot cars.
- Make sure rooms are well vented if you are using volatile chemicals.
Heat Safety in Vehicles
- Even on mild days in the 70s, studies have shown that the temperature inside a parked vehicle can rapidly rise to a dangerous level for children, pets and even adults. Leaving the windows slightly open does not significantly decrease the heating rate. A dark dashboard or car seat can quickly reach temperatures in the range of 180°F to over 200°F. These objects heat the adjacent air by conduction and convection and also give off long wave radiation, which then heats the air trapped inside a vehicle. Touch a child’s safety seat and safety belt before using it to ensure it’s not too hot before securing a child
- Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle, even with the windows down, even for just a minute
- Teach children not to play in, on, or around cars. They could accidentally trap themselves in a hot vehicle.
- Always lock car doors and trunks–even at home–and keep keys out of children’s reach.
- Always make sure children have left the car when you reach your destination. Don’t leave sleeping infants in the car.
- Click here to learn more and follow these tips to ensure childrens’ safety.
Heat stroke and exhaustion symptoms
|Symptoms||What to do|
|Heat Exhaustion||– Heavy sweating|
– Cold, pale, clammy skin
– Fast, weak pulse
– Nausea or vomiting
– Muscle cramps
– Tiredness or weakness
|– Move to a cool place |
– Loosen your clothes
– Put cool, wet clothes on your body or take a cool bath
– Sip water
Get medical help right away if:
– You are throwing up
– Your symptoms get worse
– Your symptoms last longer than one hour
|Heat Stroke||– High body temperature (103℉ or higher) |
– Hot, red, dry, or damp skin
– Fast, strong pulse
|– Call 911 immediately|
– Move person to a cooler place
– Help lower temperature with cool cloths or a cool bath
– Do NOT give the person anything to drink
California has a lot of moratoriums it needs to worry about.
Even as Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers rush to extend California’s eviction moratorium before it expires next week, another big deadline looms on the horizon. In November, the state’s moratorium on insurance companies dropping coverage for Californians living in wildfire-prone areas is set to end — meaning at least 2.1 million residents could soon find themselves without homeowners’ insurance.
That doesn’t bode well for a state whose fire season is starting earlier and lasting longer. On Monday, more than 450 firefighters were attacking the Willow Fire in Monterey County. The blaze, which started Thursday, has forced hundreds of residents to evacuate and continues to threaten historic sites, including one of the country’s oldest Japanese Buddhist Soto Zen monasteries.
Wildfires are also expanding geographically, engulfing regions long thought to be immune from blazes. Yet developers are increasingly looking to build homes in areas deemed “fire hazard severity zones” as house prices skyrocket and housing demand far outstrips supply, the Sacramento Bee reports. Lawmakers have tried to curb the practice without much success, though former Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined lawsuits to stop two developments in Lake and San Diego counties, citing fire risk.
- Lake County Supervisor Moke Simon: “Developing more housing supply is an area of profound concern, and we also need thriving businesses to employ local residents and strengthen our economy. Neither of these will happen if we adopt a perspective that wildfire-prone areas of the state should cease all development.”
Developers say they’re taking extensive measures to protect homes, including building fire-resilient roofs, tempered windows and sprinkler systems. Newsom has proposed allocating millions of dollars to harden homes against fires, though he wants to funnel much more money into fire breaks — a strategy that had limited success last year, a San Francisco Chronicle investigation found.
And despite the danger of losing their home — not to mention their insurance — many Californians living in wildfire zones have no intention of leaving.