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A stronger California heat stress rule could guide federal efforts: report

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Photo: Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Washington — Enhancing California’s workplace heat standard could better protect workers in the state and guide current federal rulemaking on heat stress prevention, a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests.

To assess the implementation of California’s 17-year-old heat stress rule, researchers analyzed nearly 500 fatal or catastrophic heat-related incidents from 2005 to 2019 and more than 16,000 heat citations issued by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health from January 2005 to May 2021.

Among the key findings:

  • Heat-related illnesses and injuries affect agricultural workers most, but also hundreds of other industries. These include bus and delivery services, janitorial services, home health care, museums, and newspaper publishers.
  • Most of the citations, including those for deaths, were issued to employers who failed to train employees effectively or failed to keep good training records.
  • Hundreds of businesses repeatedly cited for violating the heat rule skirted higher fines for a “repeat violation.”
  • Many of the citations stemmed from employee complaints, rather than routine inspections.

Noting that the standard covers only outdoor workers, NRDC calls on the state to revise the standard to include indoor workers. Other recommendations:

  • Increase Cal/OSHA’s funding and recruitment efforts so it can hire more staff and bilingual inspectors.
  • Include details in the standard that explain how employers should provide potential lifesaving assistance, such as water, rest, shade and training.
  • Better protect workers who report unsafe conditions from retaliation by employers.
  • Revise Cal/OSHA’s current citation-reduction policies.
 

In July, the House Education and Labor Committee advanced legislation that would direct federal OSHA to develop a workplace heat standard within two years of the bill’s passage. Appearing Sept. 19 on Safety+Health’s “On the Safe Side” podcast, OSHA administrator Doug Parker said that after the agency finalizes a permanent standard on COVID-19 for the health care industry, “our next priority is going to be heat.”

Currently, only four other states have heat stress regulations: Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington. NRDC notes that although the California rule “is a good model for OSHA and other states” to follow when developing their own standards, “there is still much room for improvement in how the standard is written and enforced.”

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