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Climate and Environment

Think It’s Gonna Be Hot? Ask A Food Truck Worker

Woman food truck worker is dressed in sunflower apron and stands in front of her food truck that sells Mexican barbacoa and other items.
Maricruz Solano works in a food truck called “Barbacoa Estilo Toluca” in Los Angeles. She said it can be up to 15 degrees hotter inside the truck when there’s a lot of cooking going on.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
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News of the predicted extreme heat this weekend in Southern California has spread very quickly among the region’s food truck workers.

“If it’s 100 degrees outside, then inside the truck it’ll be about 115 degrees,” said Maricruz Solano. She works on a truck selling Mexican barbacoa in South L.A.

Solano’s is among the thousands of food trucks in the Los Angeles area. And their strength is their ability to contain an entire kitchen on wheels. It’s that same element, an enclosed kitchen, that may make the workers who toil inside the trucks particularly vulnerable to heat illness during this weekend’s predicted heat wave.

Workers are taking precautions.

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“A lot of water, make sure there’s ventilation, and give them breaks so that they’re not working non-stop,” said Isabel Hernandez, who works in a food truck that was parked near the intersection of Hill and Adams streets in Los Angeles.

Inside her truck, Solano said, she has two griddles, a four-burner stove, and a steamer. There are fans inside “but they just blow the hot air around, so we turn them off,” she said.

What Protections Do Workers Have?

This truck has a rear door that can be opened for ventilation. But other trucks, such as “Juana La Cubana,” parked south of Downtown L.A., does not.

“Everything is turned on for the food, the oven, the griddle, the fryer,” said Angelica Pinol.

A wave of hot air gusted out of the truck when an employee opened a small sliding window so that Pinol could talk.

A food truck called "Juana La Cubana" is parked and serving people on a city street on a sunny, clear day.
A worker in this Los Angeles food truck said she's preparing for extreme heat by drinking water.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

What About Cal OSHA?

There are Cal OSHA regulations that spell out safety measures for workers outdoors. Those rules detail employee safety measures when outside temperatures exceed 80 degrees and additional measures starting at 95 degrees.

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These regulations direct employers to provide shade and time for employees to cool down. In extreme heat over 95 degrees, employers are to watch for signs of heat illness, and offer a minimum of 10-minute breaks every two hours to cool down.

We have no choice, we have to work.

— Carmen Luke, food truck worker, Cherry's Hot Dogs, on working in extreme heat

But the regulations say they apply to agricultural, landscaping, construction, and delivery. It’s unclear whether those regulations apply to food truck workers.

What The Retail Food Code Covers

California does have a retail food code that spells out what employers and employees are to do to prevent employees from becoming ill, and from coming to work when ill with infectious diseases or gastrointestinal diseases that may harm consumers buying the food. Various methods of hand washing and hygiene are detailed, but the code provides no information about worker safety in case of extreme heat inside food trucks.

By email, California’s Department of Industrial Relations provided links to broad worker safety guidelines during extreme heat, though nothing specifically tailored for food truck workers, like it has for farm, construction, landscaping, and delivery workers. Andthe department has an outreach campaign in English, Spanish, Hmong, and Punjabi. The Department says the regulations cover all outdoor workers.

Outreach Campaigns

The outreach campaigns are clear: heat kills, and workers have rights to cool drinking water, cool down breaks and cool down training. The advisories and training materials are visibly tailored to farm workers —California has had notable recent incidents of heat related deaths in that industry — and construction workers. But a brief internet search didn’t turn up cases of heat-related food truck worker deaths.

Some food truck workers express resignation at the news of this weekend’s heat wave.

“We have no choice, we have to work,” said Carmen Luke, who works selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs, fruit cups, and drinks in a converted van called Cherry’s Hot Dogs.

She said she’ll be drinking water and finding shade when it’s not too busy to prevent heat stroke.

“I’ve lived it,” she said. “Last year during the heat wave, when it was over 100 degrees, we were working on our roof and we got sleepy and tired.”

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