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Climate and Environment

California Has Few Protections For Working and Living In Extreme Heat Indoors

Two women walk in silhouette as water misters cool down diners in a restaurant in Palm Springs
Dangerously hot conditions hit the Coachella Valley this summer with highs of 115 to 120 degrees.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)
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We often think extreme heat is most dangerous for people who work outside. But in many places, heat can become unsafe, and even deadly, when you're inside.

Daycares, assisted living facilities, prisons, homes and other indoor spaces are susceptible to rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis, according to a new study out of UCLA.

The study concluded that California needs a comprehensive strategy to protect people who may not have the option of a cool home or workplace. It also found there is no statewide program explicitly geared towards combatting extreme heat.

Patchwork Of Regulations

Researchers from UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation analyzed more than 20 programs overseen by 10 different state agencies that address extreme heat. They found the patchwork of state-level regulations have big gaps when it comes to protecting the public from the deadliest side effect of the climate crisis.

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As California prepares to spend $750 million over the next two years to tackle extreme heat across the state, the study aimed to identify gaps in state-level policy.

The single biggest policy gap? California has no heat regulations for people when they’re working indoors, said J.R. DeShazo, former Director of the Luskin Center and the report’s lead author.

“If you work in a warehouse, if you're working in an industrial setting, if you work in a setting like a delivery truck operator for Amazon, your employer is not required to think about the kind of heat you're exposed to,” DeShazo said.

“There are no guidelines on providing you with appropriate hydration or breaks, a cooling environment.”

An indoor heat-illness prevention rule was slated to be enacted by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2019, but it remains in draft form. The rule would require employers to provide access to water and cooldown areas and have emergency response procedures when indoor temperatures exceed 82 degrees. The agency has similar heat regulations for outdoor workers.

Building Codes

The state also has to take a closer look at building codes, the study says. Although state building codes require buildings to have heating systems to keep occupants sufficiently warm, there are no such requirements to make sure that indoor spaces remain sufficiently cool. California isn’t alone. No state has such regulations. Local building and safety codes vary widely and these regulations aren’t well-enforced, DeShazo said.

That’s especially troublesome when it comes to renters, particularly renters with low incomes who may have to decide between buying groceries or paying rent and purchasing an A/C unit. Ultimately, landlords need to be held to higher standards to make homes more energy efficient and heat-safe, and the state can develop policies around that, DeShazo said. But policy without enforcement is essentially meaningless.

Although California has some of the strictest outdoor heat standards in the U.S., the law has failed to keep workers safe. A chronically underfunded Cal OSHA means that violations of the laws often go unchecked, and workers, who are often undocumented, are left with little recourse, a recent LAist investigation found.

DeShazo wants the study to push state lawmakers to enact state-level policies for a more coordinated approach.

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“My hope is that some of the most vulnerable built environments, like indoor workplaces, we can have stronger regulations for,” DeShazo said. “Employers employing workers indoors can be held to performance standards that are based on not exceeding certain thermal thresholds. And they should be. They should be responsible for maintaining a work environment that's not going to cause physical harm to a person's health. Currently, we don't have those policy frameworks in place.”

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