This past week, one of our staff members, Javier Rodriguez, testified in front of Congress on the need for a national bill regulating heat in the workplace. The need to protect workers facing high heat environments has not been taken on as a national issue yet despite the number of injuries and deaths that occur each year as a result. California was the first state to implement any form of standards regulating heat in the workplace. In 2006, the first move to protect workers from high heat and heat-related illnesses and death went into effect. Within the language of the bill, standards are specifically geared toward outdoor workers and workplaces and outlines which industries are protected under it. These industries include agriculture, construction, landscaping, oil and gas extraction, and transportation but fail to provide protections for warehouse workers and other indoor workers.
The death of four workers in 2005 due to heat-related illnesses spurred a push for an official state standard regarding occupational heat. This led to the first bill being passed in 2006. Then governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, held a press conference where he called for emergency measures to be put in place by California’s Occupational Safety and Health Board, or Cal/OSHA, that would provide the means for regulating heat in the workplace. Being the first of its kind in the nation, it set a standard for how all states should provide protections for workers from the heat. Unfortunately, however, California was not followed by many other states. In fact, only Minnesota and Washington have issued some form of guidelines on heat concerning occupational safety in the 14 years since that moment. Without a federal guideline on how employers should prevent heat-related illness, there have been more deaths as a result of high heat conditions in the workplace. In 2011, there were 61 deaths linked to heat-related illness caused by conditions in the workplace. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or NIOSH is tasked with conducting research and creating standards surrounding workplace safety and because this is their purpose as an institution, any injuries and deaths that occur as a result of a lack of regulations around heat are negligent on the part of our government.
Knowing the dangers that unchecked work environments pose, especially in the high heat of the summer in the Inland Empire, the Warehouse Workers Resource Center has worked to have legislation that would provide protections for workers both on the state and federal level. In 2016, the WWRC worked with California Senator Connie Leyva to introduce a bill, SB 1167, that would expand heat protections for workers in indoor facilities. In that same year, 39 people died due to heat-related illnesses. The passage of the bill instructed Cal/OSHA to come up with standards for heat illness and injury prevention by January of this year.
On July 11th, one of our staff members, Javier Rodriguez testified in front of Congress about the need for a national occupational heat standard. As someone with 15 years of experience in warehouse and construction jobs, Javier was able to speak to the ways he’s seen employers neglecting the health of their employees in favor of profit and efficiency. As an organizer with the WWRC, Javier is committed to helping workers organize and exercise their rights. His testimony spoke to the experiences he faced while working for NFI Crossdock, a facility that moves goods for Walmart. From his testimony, we learn that the metal shipping containers that the workers moved heavy boxes in and out of would reach temperatures as high as 115 degrees in the summer.
Representative Susan Wild of Pennsylvania asks Javier about the conditions at the NFI Crossdock.
With temperatures this high, one could assume that managers at NFI would take measures to prevent on the clock injuries and illnesses but this was not the case. Instead, Javier saw that those who spoke up to their managers about the high heat, lack of breaks, and the lack of access to drinking water were retaliated against and not asked to return to work the next day.
The bill, HR 3668, or as Representative Judy Chu of California’s 27th district has pinned it, the Asuncíon Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act would expand protections for workers facing high heat environments. Her and Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona’s 3rd District introduced the bill at a press conference where they had different community members speak about why a national standard regulating occupational heat is so crucial. Representative Chu described Asuncíon’s story in the bill’s introduction, saying that he passed away after suffering from a heat stroke at the end of working 10 hours straight in 105-degree weather. As we remember and reflect on Asunción’s story, we must recognize that even one death is too many when the conditions that caused these fatalities were completely preventable. What we are seeing, however, is an unwillingness to respond in any significant way by our government.
Representative Judy Chu introduces the bill to the House.
Among those who spoke was Arturo Rodriguez. As the former president of United Farm Workers, Mr. Rodriguez has worked with thousands of farmworkers across the country and carries a deep knowledge of the serious dangers that heat illnesses pose for communities of workers. He was also a member of the panel that Javier was on and testified to the way that communities of farmworkers are too familiar with and deeply affected by the dangers of heat illnesses.
Arturo Rodriguez speaks to California’s history with heat regulations.
As time passes without the protections we need and as the nation slowly dips into warmer temperatures, all workers remain at risk to heat-related illness. The road to stronger protections is being complicated and extended by lengthy bureaucratic processes. Currently, in the month of July, Cal/OSHA is still formulating a final draft of the bill which was originally expected to be released at the beginning of this year. With a standardized regulatory impact assessment, or SRIA, still needed before the bill is passed through to the next stage, it is expected that the bill will not become law until next year. Once the SRIA is conducted, the bill will be voted on within the standards board of Cal/OSHA and once approved, then it will become law.
Considering the timeline that California has created in enacting heat standards, especially with its splitting and staggering of heat protections between outdoor and indoor workers in a decade difference, we expect there to be a long fight in our efforts to pass national heat protections for workers. Despite any of these difficulties, the WWRC will continue to call attention to this issue as we work toward educating workers on how to prevent heat-related illnesses and as we advocate for policy that will create safeguards for all workers.
The hearing can be viewed in full in the link below.