Is California’s Heat Illness Prevention Act Actually Working?
This, following an investigation by The Desert Sun (12/2/15), a newspaper serving Palm Springs. According to the story, reporters were able to access documents through a request under the Public Records Act. Documentation suggested that Cal/OSHA had identified 13 deaths from heat-related causes in the 10 years since the enactment of the state’s Heat Illness Prevention Act (The Act) of 2005.
However, that number does not jive with data associated with a recently settled lawsuit brought by the United Farm Workers (UFW). That data put the number of deaths due to heat-related stresses at more than double those identified by Cal/OSHA. What’s more, the data covered by the UFW covered just a six-year period, from 2005 through 2011, v. the 10-year window identified by Cal/OSHA.
The Desert Sun suggests that part of the disconnect may be due to criteria that Cal/OSHA uses to classify a death as heat related. Of specific cases scrutinized by The Desert Sun reporting team, witnesses described circumstances that had all the markings of heat exhaustion. However, doctors and coroners, whose mandate it is to rule on a cause, could not determine if heat actually caused the death or was a contributing factor.
A death deemed to have been caused by heat exhaustion must be identified plainly with heat as the absolute cause, rather than an underlying contributor - at least in the eyes of Cal/OSHA, according to the report.
Regardless of the interpretation, The Desert Sun opines that the decade-old Heat Illness Prevention Act appears to have not been working, with rates of heat illness remaining effectively unchanged. In that time, heat-related illnesses (and deaths either caused or exacerbated by heat stress) have continued.
Last May (2015) the state strengthened The Act by mandating employers to monitor their outdoor workers for the first two weeks of employment in an area of high heat. Cool drinking water is to be readily available, and suitable shade for rest breaks and meal periods must be provided when temperatures hit 80 degrees.
Once temperatures reach 95 degrees, employers are mandated to provide workers with a 10-minute break with suitable shade once every two hours, as a minimum.
The Desert Sun reported that Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) has vowed to investigate in realistic terms how the industry is monitored, and how Cal/OSHA specifically classifies heat-related illness and deaths.
In the meantime, any employer who fails to undertake provisions of The Act - including those provisions updated in May - leave themselves open to litigation should an illness or death occur.
On an unrelated note, Cal/OSHA has proposed a standard for workplace violence prevention. The standard would require health care employers to implement a written workplace violence prevention plan, together with procedures to communicate workplace violence matters to employees.
Provided the standard is adopted, any implemented plan would bar employers from retaliating against employees who seek help from emergency services or law enforcement if a violent incident occurs. This would have ramifications in a hospital or eldercare facility.