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Russell: Canaries in a Coal Mine

  • State: California
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Last week, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul held a press conference to announce the details of a new study that describes a correlation between hot summer days and workers’ compensation claims in her state.

Andrew Russell

Andrew Russell

The data showed that when the heat index is over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, injuries resulting in claims were 45% more likely to arise and 20% more severe. The study, conducted by the New York State Insurance Fund, analyzed 95,000 workers’ compensation claims from 2017 to 2021. The report also suggests that as temperatures rise, so do medical costs and the likelihood of claims.

While climate change affects everyone, certain workers — dubbed “climate canaries” by the American Journal of Public Health — are especially vulnerable. These include outdoor workers, indoor workers in hot environments and emergency response workers.

The increased frequency of extreme heat conditions and the growing risks to climate canaries highlight the necessity of California’s current and proposed outdoor heat rules. Senate Bill 1299 would create a presumption for heat-related injuries within the agriculture industry and acknowledge the specific hurdles faced by farmworkers in reporting injuries, such as language barriers and fear of employer retaliation.

California law currently requires that agricultural employers provide shade, hydration access, rest breaks and heat illness-prevention training. Those heat illness-prevention regulations are succeeding on the farms that are complying. However, according to a 2023 study from the University of California, Merced, Community and Labor Center, nearly half of farmworkers reported that their employers never presented a plan to prevent heat illness as mandated by law. And nearly one in six farmworkers said they did not receive the minimum number of rest breaks required by law.

More compliance equals fewer heat injuries.

CAAA will continue to monitor developments with respect to the pending changes to California’s occupational safety and health laws and regulations. Protecting California workers, particularly our farmworkers, from heat-related injuries is not just a matter of occupational safety, but also a fundamental human rights issue that requires proactive measures and collective efforts from employers, policymakers and advocates.

Andrew Russell is director of communications for the California Applicants' Attorneys Association. This opinion is republished, with permission, from the CAAA website.

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