Newsom Derails Indoor Heat Standard Rules Over Cost Concerns – Employment Law Weekly

Newsom Derails Indoor Heat Standard Rules Over Cost Concerns

It has taken five years for California to adopt regulations to protect workers from indoor heat. This week there was an unexpected delay.

CalMatters reports that the rule was expected to be finally voted into place by the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board at a meeting this week in San Diego. But Wednesday night, state officials ordered that it be pulled from the agenda after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration suddenly withdrew a required stamp of approval, saying it learned the rule would cost state prisons much more money than anticipated.

The eleventh-hour move infuriated workers, their advocates – and the safety board itself, which faced a brief protest by the rule’s proponents during the meeting. Then in an equally remarkable rebuke, the board unanimously voted to approve the indoor heat rule anyway.

The six-member board, an independent part of the state’s labor agency, is appointed by the governor. Members said during the meeting that they had been “blindsided,” that the move to pull the agenda item was “a slap in the face” and that workers in numerous other industries such as warehouses, manufacturing and restaurants had waited long enough.

Still, the future of the rule is uncertain.

Approved regulations cannot become law without the sign-off from the state’s Department of Finance, which it withdrew Wednesday night. Department spokesperson H.D. Palmer told CalMatters it had received a late estimate “in the last few weeks” from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that it would cost the state billions more dollars to comply with the rule in state prisons than the state’s workplace safety agencies predicted. He did not explain why the information came so late, but said after the vote that his department has been meeting with the board’s staff in recent weeks.

And this weeks meeting was only nine days before a deadline in California administrative law to approve the proposed rule – with a sign-off included – for it to take effect this summer.

Board members said they hoped their move would spur the administration to resolve its concerns with the proposed rule with more urgency.  They also asked Cal/OSHA, which enforces workplace safety laws and which initially drafted the heat rule in 2017, to prepare to re-introduce the rule as an emergency regulation this year, which allows faster approvals. Cal/OSHA’s deputy chief of health Eric Berg told the board his agency, too, was caught by surprise by the administration’s move.

A spokesperson for the Department of Industrial Relations – which oversees both the standards board and Cal/OSHA – said it was “evaluating options to strengthen protections as soon as possible” and would continue assessing workers’ complaints of indoor heat under a general rule requiring safe workplaces. The agency received 549 safety complaints related to indoor heat in 2023, and 194 the year before.

Cal/OSHA and the standards board have been developing the rule for years amid rising concerns about the health effects of climate change on workers. A 2016 law directed the agencies to create an indoor workplace heat rule by 2019 — five years ago.

The proposed rule would require employers to either try to cool workplaces that get hotter than 87 degrees indoors or take other measures to reduce the risks of heat illness. California faces a budget deficit projected at as much as $73 billion. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic leaders in the Legislature announced Wednesday that they would try to reduce the shortfall by $12 billion to $18 billion before passing a full budget.

A 2021 RAND Corp. economic impact report estimated the costs of the indoor heat rule on employers statewide to total $215 million in the first year and about $88 million annually afterward, mostly for employers to install AC or fans or provide cool-down areas. The analysis also stated employers would save money because the rule would cut indoor workplace heat injuries by 40% by 2030.

For state government, the standards board last year estimated the Department of Corrections would need to pay less than $1 million in the rule’s first year and less than $500,000 annually after that to comply. About half of the state’s 1,500 correctional institutions are either already climate controlled or located in areas that won’t be hot enough to trigger the heat rule, the Department of Industrial Relations stated. That was after finance officials told the department in 2021 that it underestimated prison costs; the department said its updated analysis resulted in double the cost to the state.

The proposed rule was first drafted by Cal/OSHA in 2017 before going to the independent standards board for official rulemaking in 2019. After the board finally officially proposed the rule in March 2023 and held the public hearing, it also revised the rule three more times.

The rule has been subject to wide-ranging employer pushback and a lengthy economic impact analysis. The COVID-19 pandemic diverted attention from an understaffed state labor agency, CalMatters reported last month.

The proposed rule would require warehouses, factories, restaurants, and other workplaces to cool workplaces down if the temperature reaches 87 degrees. If installing air conditioning isn’t feasible, employers would be required to take other measures such as adjusting schedules, allowing longer breaks or providing personal fans or cooling vests.

Newsom Derails Indoor Heat Standard Rules Over Cost Concerns

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