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Young: Indoor Heat Regs in Turmoil

  • State: California

Adoption of long-awaited Cal/OSHA indoor heat standards looked like a sure thing on March 21. The California Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board was meeting in San Diego, and approval of indoor heat standards was on the agenda.

Julius Young

Julius Young

But on the day of the meeting, the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom put on the brakes, instructing OSHSB to remove the item from the agenda. Newsom's Department of Finance indicated that it needed more time to analyze the financial impact of the standards.

Labor advocates and board members reacted with fury. Board Chair David Thomas decided to proceed with a vote anyway, which resulted in a 6-0 vote in favor of the proposed indoor heat standards. 

However, the path forward is unclear.

Before the indoor heat standards can go into effect, the Department of Finance will need to give clearance. According to the OSHSB, its next meeting is scheduled for April 18 in Gilroy.

The debate surrounding indoor heat standards is another example of issues that, while collateral to California workers' compensation are of importance to workers and comp claims.

California has been a trailblazer in heat standards. In 2006, California adopted heat standards for outdoor workers.

A currently pending bill, SB 1299, would apply to outdoor heat injuries among farmworkers. SB 1299 would create a disputable presumption that a heat-related injury that develops within a specified time frame after working outdoors for an agricultural employer that fails to comply with heat illness prevention standards shall be deemed work-related.

In 2016, the California Legislature directed Cal/OSHA to develop indoor heat standards. Reports of heat-related illnesses and deaths were of great concern, particularly within the warehouse industry.

Developing those standards has taken years, with multiple revisions, studies and a 2023 public hearing. A link to the Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board site detailing the progress of those regs over the years is here. The final proposed version can be found here.

The regs would require certain measures when indoor temperatures exceed 81 degrees, and other measures when temperature exceeds 87 degrees.

In 2021 Rand prepared a study on proposed indoor heat regulations. And a 2021 UCLA study, "Temperature, Workplace Safety and Labor Market Inequality," concluded that both indoor and outdoor high temperatures increase work injury risk.

Although there is no current federal indoor heat standard, Oregon and Minnesota have some regs on indoor heat.

Clearly, California's huge current budget shortfall is making Newsom's finance people uneasy about the potential financial effects of these indoor heat regs. The state budget deficit drives most policy issues in Sacramento at the moment.

Newsom's Department of Finance claims that it only recently received data to evaluate the financial impact on the state and some of its institutions, such as prisons.

Whether sustained opposition of powerful interests such as warehouses and restaurants is also a factor isn't clear. Some claim that compliance will be impractical, given the nature of their business and the configuration of their kitchens.

Labor and health and safety advocates are understandably frustrated with this delay. It has taken years to get to this point, only to have the rug pulled out at the last moment. The Standards Board showed courage in voting anyway, but whether there are repercussions isn't clear.

Workers' comp stakeholders should continue to watch how this plays out, as well as legislative consideration of the outdoor heat presumption bill, SB 1299.

Julius Young is an applicants' attorney and a partner for the Boxer & Gerson law firm in Oakland. This column was reprinted with his permission from his Workers Comp Zone blog on the firm's website.

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