Amid excessive heat, California lawmakers plead for federal workplace protections

In Los Angeles this week to tout legislation working its way through Washington, D.C., Sen. Alex Padilla had a simple message: “Drink a lot of water.”

It’s a directive he and Rep. Judy Chu want employers to articulate as an excessive heat advisory blankets much of California throughout the week and Labor Day weekend.

Flanked by labor representatives, the Democratic duo highlighted efforts to enact federal workplace heat stress protections while in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Aug. 30. While temperatures only reached the mid-80s Tuesday, they reached triple digits in much of Southern California on Wednesday and are expected to remain there during the day through the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

Chu, D-Pasadena, is the author of a bill — which recently passed the House Education and Labor Committee — that would direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to quickly enact standards for indoor and outdoor workers in high-heat environments. Requirements could include access to cooling centers, shade and water.

“While workers face extreme heat amidst record heat waves, there is no federal standard to protect workers from these increasingly hazardous conditions. If passed, this legislation would apply to all indoor and outdoor workers in Orange County who experience heat stress,” Padilla said in a statement provided to the Southern California News Group. “The current heat wave is a stark reminder that a national heat safety standard is long overdue, and I’ll continue working to protect the health and safety of our nation’s workers exposed to dangerous heat conditions.”

California is only one of a handful of states that already has heat stress standards in place. The state requires employers to provide (and encourage the drinking of) water, train employees on heat illness prevention and encourage cooling down breaks.

But lawmakers said a federal requirement would go even further, expanding protections to indoor workers as well as factory and restaurant employees.

“It’s not just farm workers. It’s factory workers, construction workers, warehouse workers, truck drivers, mail carriers and more,” Padilla said. “They deserve dignity, they deserve respect, they deserve safety in the workplace, and they cannot afford to wait much longer.”

The legislation is named for Asunción Valdivia, a California farmworker who collapsed after picking grapes for 10 straight hours in temperatures reaching 105 degrees, according to lawmakers. His employer sent Valdivia home, instead of contacting medical professionals, and he died at 53 years old from heat stroke, they said.

“To prevent more tragedies like Asunción’s, we need a federal standard that protects workers all across this nation,” Chu said.

Lawmakers also pointed to the death of a 24-year-old UPS driver in Pasadena earlier this summer. The family of Esteban Chavez Jr. said they believe he died of a heat stroke.

“No farm worker, no worker, no human being should be expected to work under these conditions,” Padilla said.

On Wednesday, the day after the event touting the proposed legislation, temperatures across Orange County hovered at or near triple digits, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures topped 100 degrees throughout Riverside County, and Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley set a new daily record.

An excessive heat warning has been issued throughout Southern California, with temperatures expected to climb as high as 115 degrees in some places over Labor Day weekend.

“We need to make sure we are protecting every essential worker,” said Ron Herrera, president of the LA County Federation of Labor. “The reality is that there are thousands of workers who suffer on the job due to extreme heat conditions with no level of protection.”

Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Seal Beach, is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee but did not vote to advance the OSHA bill.

A spokeswoman said Steel attempted to add an amendment ensuring small businesses would “have a seat at the table (because) any arbitrary regulations or deadlines from this bill could impact those businesses the most.” However, that amendment did not pass.

A Senate version awaits consideration in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

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