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
The Mendocino Voice will be covering the ongoing drought here in Mendocino County and the North Coast in the coming months — if you want to share your experience with water shortages or drought or have a news tip, please get in touch at [email protected].
Lea este artículo en español.
Californians used 2.6% more water in January compared to before the drought emergency was declared, a sign that urban residents are ignoring the state’s pleas to take the drought seriously and cut back.
The new data, which details urban water use statewide, shows that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s repeated pleas for a 15% voluntary cutback in water use are failing to reach people in cities and towns. Yet Newsom has stopped short of issuing a mandatory order.
“With the voluntary call, some areas were doing okay, others not so well. The message gets pretty garbled. With a mandate, it’s a very clear message about the need,” said Heather Cooley, research director with the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank.
Newsom spokesperson Alex Stack declined to answer whether Newsom intends to set a mandatory conservation order.
In January, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted emergency regulations allowing water providers to bar certain wasteful water uses, such as hosing down sidewalks with drinking water.
But water use nevertheless ticked up statewide in January compared to January 2020. The biggest increase was 19% in the desert region that includes the Palm Springs area and the Imperial Valley. The South Lahontan region, spanning the Sierra Nevada, mountain communities of Southern California and Death Valley, had the second highest increase, at 9%. Residents of the Los Angeles basin and San Diego County used 1.8% more water, while those in most of the Central Valley used 6 to 7% more.
The only regions that slightly reduced water consumption were the San Francisco Bay Area, which used 1.4% less, and the southern San Joaquin Valley, which used 0.2% less.
Overall, Californians from July of last year through January conserved about 6.5% statewide compared to 2020, according to state data — falling far short of Newsom’s requested 15%.
Several years into the last devastating drought in 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown authorized state regulators to order reductions from water suppliers to conserve 25% more water across California.
Now, a year after Newsom declared a drought emergency in hard-hit northwest counties, some experts say a state mandate is critical to keeping enough water in storage to survive a drought that could last a number of years.
Newsha Ajami, a longtime water researcher, said the mandate should have happened months ago, when reservoirs were low and there was no precipitation in sight. “Having a mandatory water restriction is in everyone’s benefit,” said Ajami, who is the chief strategy and development officer for research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The new state data only includes water use from urban water districts, not rural irrigation districts that serve farms.
At a Sacramento press conference last week, California’s Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot thanked residents for their efforts but reiterated a plea for voluntary cutbacks.
“I’m also here on behalf of Governor Newsom to ask all of us to do more,” Crowfoot said. “It’s once again time for Sacramentans, residents of this region, Californians to step up and help us navigate through this drought.”
Under the statewide mandate issued during the last drought, water suppliers were required to conserve 25% statewide — with regions assigned a certain percentage of water depending on their existing use — or face escalating consequences that could result in fines.
Californians responded: They cut their water use by 23.9% between June 2015 and February 2016, compared to the same months in 2013, according to water board staff. Cities and towns still use less water daily than they did before the last drought began: about 17% less per person.
This time, however, many water suppliers have relied on ramping up outreach and rebates rather than imposing new restrictions or fines.
Ordering California’s water suppliers to cut back further is likely to be a controversial move.
State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Democrat from Hanford, is skeptical that it would work.
“If we’re still not even over the (COVID-19) vaccine mandate and the testing mandate, and now you’re going to ask people to cut down on water consumption? That you should take less showers and you can’t get a new pool or whatever it may be?” she said. “Yeah, no, that’s going to make people really angry.”
Hurtado called for structural and technological changes — like developing more drought-resistant crops and fixing canals damaged by subsidence — over behavioral ones. Those, however, take time.
Water providers caution against reading too much into the low January conservation numbers: It’s harder for Californians to squeeze out additional savings during the winter, when many already cut back on watering their yards.
In December, which had record-setting storms, Californians used 15.6% less water compared to the previous year, with the greatest savings in southern parts of the state. It was the first time Californians statewide crossed the 15% water conservation target that Newsom urged residents to meet last July.
Since July, the greatest savings came from the hard-hit North Coast and the San Francisco Bay Area. The least, from the inland mountains and deserts of central and southeast California.
Water systems on the North Coast “were the canary in the coal mine,” said Marielle Rhodeiro, research data specialist with the water board’s conservation program. “They were the first to start running out of water. I think there’s a little bit more awareness up north, probably because we’re closer to the immediate problem.”
Some water suppliers crack down, others coax
For some local water agencies, voluntary calls for conservation have come close to meeting their own goals, though not the state’s 15% target.
In the Bay Area, the East Bay Municipal Utility District upped its rates to fund improvements and asked residents to voluntarily cut water use by 10%.
The district ramped up rebates for replacing turf in yards and street medians, and launched an advertising campaign on streaming audio platforms and social media recommending five-minute songs for people to listen to while they showered.
It worked, to a certain extent: Water use decreased by more than 10% from July through December compared to last year, the district reported to the state. But now the savings are slipping; water use increased in February, according to water conservation manager Alice Towey.
“Clearly, it’s becoming difficult (to conserve) this time of year, when nature is normally watering our East Bay gardens,” Towey said. February was California’s second driest on record.
Farther south in San Jose, insufficient voluntary conservation prompted the local water company to institute surcharges for those who exceed mandatory limits based on 15% cuts to water used above a minimum threshold in 2019. In November, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the district’s mandate, which took effect in December.
Residents saved 20% more water in November compared to 2019 levels. With little outdoor irrigation to cut back in winter months, however, the savings evaporated in December and January.
The area lost about half of its above-ground water storage capacity due to earthquake retrofits for the region’s largest reservoir.
For Liann Walborsky, San Jose Water’s director of corporate communications, a statewide mandate would reinforce their efforts and drive home the message that conservation is critical. “I think it would just help validate all the work we’ve been doing since June,” she said.
In the aerospace hub of Palmdale in the Mojave Desert, after the area received less than two inches of rain, local water officials faced the possibility of mandatory cuts last summer. Then they bolstered their supplies enough to make it through the dry months.
The district called for 15% voluntary cutbacks to reverse increasing water use as residents weathered the COVID-19 pandemic at home, stepping up outreach and advertising for its rebate program to replace thirsty landscapes. Rebates increased by almost 70% from around $53,000 in 2020 to more than $89,000 in 2021.
In the first half of 2021, residents used about 11% more than in 2020. But the latter half ended up about 5% lower.
Still, the water district’s director of resources and analytics Peter Thompson is torn about whether it’s time for a statewide mandate.
“The momentum of having the state come out with a mandate makes our jobs easier,” Thompson said. “But California is huge. And it’s diverse in terms of the different water agencies and their available water supplies. So it makes a lot more sense to make that an individual choice for each agency.”
Mandates may not be enough
For some water systems, even mandatory calls for conservation haven’t been enough to weather water shortages.
By May 2021, in the small coastal hamlet of Mendocino, residents and businesses were required to use 40% less water than their allocations. Wells still went dry, water trucked from other districts climbed in cost when it was available, and restaurants in a town reliant on tourism were forced to weigh whether staying open was worth the expense of washing the dishes.
Ryan Rhoades, supervisor for the Mendocino City Community Services District, said he filled buckets of creek water to keep relatives’ toilets flushing. He said most residents managed to stay below the mandatory target, but estimates that about 5% didn’t.
The county and state stepped in to help, subsidizing trucks to haul water 60 miles from Ukiah to a reservoir in nearby Fort Bragg to bolster the coastal towns’ supplies. And though the conservation mandate was lifted after early winter rains, replaced by a call to voluntarily reduce use by 15% of each well owner’s allotment, the city is bracing for another dry summer — and hoping to prevent more shortages ahead.
Rhoades said he’s awaiting word from the state on possible funding to tie into the local school district’s water supply, drill more wells and increase storage. The wait, he said, is “frustrating and challenging, because people are aware that we have a problem, and we need help.”
The state budget last year included $5.2 billion for drought response and water resiliency. Since the drought began, the Department of Water Resources has awarded more than $195 million to projects aimed at addressing shortages and bolstering emergency and longer-term supplies, including those supporting disadvantaged communities and tribes with well repairs, securing hauled water, and other efforts.
The State Water Resources Control Board tallies $9.75 billion in loans and grants for drinking water, wastewater, groundwater cleanup and stormwater capture since 2014, board chair Joaquin Esquivel said at a press conference last week.
Legislation enacted after the last drought called for urban water providers to develop water budgets based on a number of factors, including indoor and outdoor water efficiency standards. Calculating water budgets is expected to take through the end of 2023, but could pave the way for more sophisticated, targeted mandates going forward, said the Pacific Institute’s Cooley.
But urban water use is just a small part of California’s water supply problem.
Of all the water Californians use, about 20% flows through urban taps, hoses and sprinklers. Almost all of the rest is for agriculture, which pumps water from wells and also gets supplies from rivers as well as state and federal aqueducts.
During the last drought in 2015, Brown was criticized for not imposing conservation orders on agriculture.
“We should be doing more conservation in general, and particularly in drought years,” said Jay Lund, a University of California, Davis, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “But the quantities of water that we will save from this conservation will not be enough to take a tremendous amount of pressure off of farmers or off the environment.”
CalMatters environment coverage is supported by the 11th Hour Project and Len and Mary Anne Baker.