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California’s heat-stricken warehouse workers won’t soon be cooled due to holdup in new protections

California’s heat-stricken warehouse workers won’t soon be cooled due to holdup in new protections

For six years, Inland warehouse workers looked to Sacramento to beat the heat.

Relief arrived Thursday, March 21, when a state board approved rules protecting workers in a range of settings from sweltering indoor temperatures.

But those rules could be put on ice for months if not longer, frustrating activists who warn that indoor heat threatens warehouse workers’ health, if not their lives.

While the rules stem from a law passed eight years ago, the California Department of Finance maintains it hasn’t had enough time to do a legally required study of the rules’ costs.

“I guess the question is, well, what were they doing all these years?” asked Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Ontario-based Warehouse Worker Resource Center.

Finance department spokesperson H.D. Palmer said it wasn’t until February — admittedly late in the process, he said — when his agency learned of “significant costs” — potentially several billions of dollars — to enforce the new rules in state prisons.

That triggered a legal requirement for an in-depth department study of the rules’ costs, Palmer said. The department wasn’t able to do that study by the time the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board met March 21, he added.

“It wasn’t a question of the issue of heat regulations at all,” Palmer said. “It wasn’t an issue of worker safety. It was simply an issue of our inability to be able to do the fiscal due diligence that was necessary.”

It’s “unlikely” the state’s Office of Administrative Law, which reviews state regulations, would move forward with the indoor heat rules “without a certification by us,” Palmer said.

What’s more, a one-year clock for the finance department to certify it concurs with the rules’ financial estimates expires March 30, Palmer said.

“After that, the clock resets and it’s unclear how long it will take until the rules can be enforced. It wouldn’t necessarily take an entire year,” Palmer said.

The state Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees labor laws, could hypothetically enact the heat rules as emergency regulations that don’t require the finance department’s input, Palmer said. In that case, the rules would be in effect for one year and not become permanent until the finance department wraps up its cost study, he added.

In an emailed statement, Erin Mellon, communications director for Gov. Gavin Newsom, said “the administration is committed to implementing the indoor heat regulations and ensuring workplace protections.”

“However, it is imprudent to move forward with a cost estimate that is off by billions of dollars. We are exploring all options to put these worker protections in place, including working with the legislature.”

Logistics is a cornerstone of the Inland Empire economy, employing tens of thousands of people who work in warehouses — often 1 million square feet or larger — that stretch into the horizon. Summertime temperatures frequently reach 100 degrees or higher in the region and in the desert, where more warehouses are sprouting up to satisfy the demand for logistics space.

For years, warehouse workers have complained about fainting, headaches, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms they blame on sweltering indoor working conditions in a fast-paced environment with little to no time for breaks.

In some cases, the heat has led to workers having heart attacks or organ failure, Kaoosji said.

“Because workers are pushed to work as fast as they can, they skip taking a break. They don’t drink water,” Kaoosji said. “Often the water is far away from where the workers are.”

Workers “also walk in and out of metal shipping containers that are out in the sun a lot of the time during the day,” Kaoosji said.

Some warehouses are air conditioned, but many aren’t, he added.

“The heat in those facilities often does build up over time to the point where it’s as hot or even sometimes hotter inside than outdoors.”

Online retailer Amazon, a major Inland logistics employer, has said it has already taken a number of steps to keep workers cool.

Regarding the new rules, Amazon spokesperson Maureen Lynch Vogel said via email: “We’ve seen the positive impacts of our effective heat mitigation program and believe all employers should be held to the same standard we’ve already proactively set for our company and our Amazon delivery service providers.”

The new rules, which apply to non-warehouse employers as well, make California the second state in the nation after Oregon to enact indoor workplace heat standards and are an outgrowth of state legislation signed in 2016. There is no nationwide indoor heat standard.

That law establishes temperature thresholds that, if reached, would require warehouse employers to take steps to either lower inside temperatures or give workers heat relief.

Once the indoor temperature reaches 82 degrees, employers would have to give workers water and access to cooling areas. Fans or other cooling devices would have to be used once the temperature hits 87 degrees.

“Right now, workers have the right to speak up when they feel ill or feel impacted no matter what,” Kaoosji said. “(The new rules put a) burden on the employer to actually deal with (heat) and address it when it’s above that temperature because workers shouldn’t have to be in a position where they (have to) complain or speak up.”

With the rules in limbo, Kaoosji said his center is reaching out to elected officials and working with labor unions and other groups “to make clear that (these rules) need to go into effect.”

“We’re still going to bring workers together to speak up about this issue in their workplaces throughout the summer and educate workers about the right to speak up about heat and other issues in the workplace whether or not there is a standard.”

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