Extreme Heat: It’s Not Just an Indoor (or Summer) Problem

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Need to Know from SafeWise
  • Year-round heat challenge: Extreme heat inside warehouses and indoor workplaces isn't limited to summer; in Southern California, it can persist year-round.
  • Health impacts: Workers in poorly ventilated indoor spaces have reported health issues like nosebleeds, nausea, and dizziness due to excessive heat.
  • California taking action: California is working on adopting heat regulations for indoor workers, joining only two other states, Minnesota and Oregon, with such rules in place.
Tired, hot Asian male worker sitting resting in warehouse.

Image: coffeekai, iStock

Extreme heat isn't just a summer problem for millions of indoor workers. The oppressive heat inside some warehouses where workers might spend 10-hour days isn't just a summer problem. In Southern California, it can feel like summer all year. Workers often break into a sweat and grow tired due to inconsistent ventilation, leading to health issues like nosebleeds, nausea, and dizziness. Some warehouses even require workers to walk half a mile to find a place to cool down.

Sara Fee, a former worker at an Amazon warehouse in San Bernardino, testified about her experiences, saying, "Throughout the day, my shirt is soaked in sweat three to four times. I have been nauseous, dizzy." With the climate warming and the threat of extreme heat spreading, California is taking steps to protect indoor workers in poorly ventilated job sites, like warehouses and steamy restaurant kitchens, where temperatures can become potentially dangerous.

California proposes indoor heat regulations

California has had heat standards in place for outdoor workers since 2005, but now the state is also working on implementing heat rules for indoor workplaces. Only two other states—Minnesota and Oregon—have adopted heat rules for indoor workers, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Nationally, federal legislation on this issue has stalled in Congress.

If California adopts its proposed rules in the spring, businesses will be required to maintain indoor temperatures 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. Businesses that can't meet these requirements must provide workers with water, breaks, cooling areas, cooling vests, or other means to prevent overheating.

Alice Berliner, director of the Worker Health & Safety Program at UC Merced, emphasizes the importance of protecting both indoor and outdoor workers: "Having protections for both indoor and outdoor workers empowers someone to feel like they can ask for access to drinking water and access to a break when they feel like they're hot."

However, workers and businesses are only somewhat satisfied with the proposed plan. Some businesses fear they won't be able to meet the requirements, even with the flexibility the regulation offers. On the other hand, workers argue that the proposed temperatures are still too high, especially for jobs in warehouses and food-processing plants.

Heat stress and worker health

Heat stress can lead to serious health issues like heat exhaustion, heatstroke, cardiac arrest, and kidney failure. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported approximately 1,600 heat-related deaths, which is likely an undercount since healthcare providers are not required to report them. It's also unclear how many of these deaths are related to work, whether indoors or outdoors.

Rand Corp. analyzed California's proposed indoor heat rules and found that between 2010 and 2017, 20 workers died from heat, with seven of them due to indoor heat. After the record-breaking heatwave in the Pacific Northwest in 2021, Oregon adopted protections for indoor workers when temperatures reach 80 degrees. Minnesota has threshold temperatures ranging from 77 to 86 degrees, depending on the type of work.

California regulators designed these indoor rules to complement existing protections for outdoor workers. When outside temperatures exceed 80 degrees, employers must provide shade and monitor workers for signs of heat illness. At or above 95 degrees, they must implement measures to prevent heat illness, such as reducing work hours or providing extra breaks. Other states like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington also have rules in place for outdoor workers.

Vote expected in March

The California Occupational Safety and Standards Board is expected to vote on these rules in March, with them taking effect by this summer. Some employees, like those working remotely or in emergency operations, would be exempt from the rule.

Workers argue that buildings should be cooler than the proposed temperatures, particularly in warehouses and food-processing plants. They highlight the lack of airflow in many buildings, making the heat unbearable.

While some companies, like Amazon, claim to have adequate heat mitigation programs in place, many workers believe that more needs to be done to protect their health and well-being. The urgency to implement these regulations at the state level arises partly due to federal inaction. Legislation to require OSHA to publish emergency rules for temporary standards for all workers has stalled in Congress.

Rep. Greg Casar, a co-sponsor of the federal bill, stressed the need to protect workers, especially as the climate worsens. He noted that worker protection rules have often been delayed in prolonged rulemaking processes and called for immediate action to safeguard workers from extreme indoor heat.

In conclusion, extreme indoor heat is not just a problem confined to the summer season, and California is taking steps to protect workers from potentially dangerous working conditions. If California's proposed indoor heat rules are adopted, it could set a precedent for the rest of the nation, demonstrating the importance of prioritizing worker safety indoors and out.

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Disclaimer: Portions of this article were assisted by automation technology. All content therein has been augmented, thoroughly edited, and fact-checked by our in-house editorial staff of human safety experts.

Rebecca Edwards
Written by
Rebecca Edwards
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past decade. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month poring over crime and safety reports and spotting trends. Her expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her expert advice and analysis in places like NPR, TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, HGTV, MSN, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, and an ever-growing library of podcast, radio and TV clips in the US and abroad.

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