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Why Aren’t Warehouse Workers Being Better Protected from Dangerous Hot Temps?

Why Aren’t Warehouse Workers Being Better Protected from Dangerous Hot Temps?

Oct. 18, 2021
In a recent article in the LA Times, warehouse workers said that their company protects the products from heat better than the people.

Generally, everyone is aware of the extreme heat that Southern California has been under.  In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the average temperature in California reached 77.3 degrees from June to August. That topped the previous record of 76.5 degrees in summer 2017.

But how often do we worry about the working conditions people are experiencing in warehouses located in this area? 

Reading an article in the LA Times, I was particularly struck by this quote “ We have this giant frickin’ refrigerated room to keep the chocolate from melting. While people are practically ... dropping off,” " said Debbie  Fontaine who has worked in a warehouse for 21 years. She told the LA Times that it’s common for supervisors to walk employees to the chocolate room when they begin to feel faint from the heat.

The paper also reports that at another warehouse in Southern California, workers described conditions as follows:

They say their leg muscles cramp and their hearts race. They sweat through their clothes. Made sluggish by the heat, they struggle to pull products at the pace the company sets, incurring demerits that threaten their jobs. The told of cases whereat least three employees fell ill with heat exhaustion in June when an unusually severe heatwave descended on Southern California. Two became so dehydrated that they needed IV bags of saline solution to replenish lost fluids.

The heat, and its potentially dangerous effects on workers, did get the attention of the White House, who in July announced that OSHA is working on a Heat Standard target indoor workers without climate-controlled environments, including those who toil in manufacturing, warehouses, and distribution centers that fall under that definition. David Sparkman, in an article on EHS, reported that Courtney M. Malveaux of the law firm of Jackson Lewis noted that President Biden tied the proceeding to climate change policy by pointing out that 18 of the last 19 years were the hottest on record and the intensity of recent heatwaves have put many employees at increased risk.

On Sept. 21, OSHA announced expanded measures and said it is implementing an enforcement initiative on heat-related hazards, developing a National Emphasis Program on heat inspections, and launching a rulemaking process to develop a workplace heat standard. In addition, the agency is forming a National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Work Group to provide a better understanding of challenges and to identify and share best practices to protect workers.

“Throughout the nation, millions of workers face serious hazards from high temperatures both outdoors and indoors. Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events are increasing the dangers workers face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions,” said U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, said in a statement. 

OSHA Area Directors across the nation will institute the following:

  • Prioritize inspections of heat-related complaints, referrals and employer-reported illnesses and initiate an onsite investigation where possible.
  • Instruct compliance safety and health officers, during their travels to job sites, to conduct an intervention (providing the agency's heat poster/wallet card, discuss the importance of easy access to cool water, cooling areas, and acclimatization) or opening an inspection when they observe employees performing strenuous work in hot conditions.
  • Expand the scope of other inspections to address heat-related hazards where worksite conditions or other evidence indicates these hazards may be present.

In October 2021, OSHA will take a significant step toward a federal heat standard to ensure protections in workplaces across the country by issuing an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on heat injury and illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings. The advance notice will initiate a comment period allowing OSHA to gather diverse perspectives and technical expertise on topics including heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring, and strategies to protect workers.

The agency is also working to establish a National Emphasis Program on heat hazard cases, which will target high-risk industries and focus agency resources and staff time on heat inspections. The 2022 National Emphasis Program will build on the existing Regional Emphasis Program for Heat Illnesses in OSHA's Region VI, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

While all of this is welcome news, I do think it needs to be pointed out that this is an issue that should have been addressed earlier.  "The extreme temperatures warehouse workers face are avoidable, said Tim Shadix, legal director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, in the LA Times article.  “There are food or pharmaceutical warehouses — they have no problem keeping those climate-controlled,” Shadix said. “It’s a profit thing, where they’re not willing to do that to protect humans.”

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