California heat protections at risk from push to exclude prisons

Prison inmate lies on his bed at Oak Glen Conservation Fire Camp #35 in Yucaipa, California November 6, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Prison inmate lies on his bed at Oak Glen Conservation Fire Camp #35 in Yucaipa, California November 6, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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Cost jitters over heatwave safeguards for California prisons could derail new rules for all indoor workers in the state

  • Cost concerns cited as reason to exempt prisons, jails
  • Heat protection for workers seen lacking across US
  • Inmates and prison employees face particular risks

RICHMOND - A proposal to exclude prisons from California's long-awaited rules to protect indoor workers from extreme heat threatens to delay implementation until well into the summer or kill off the safeguards altogether, labour rights advocates say.

The state's Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board submitted revised standards in May that included the exemption for prisons and jails – months after an earlier version was delayed over apparent cost concerns.

Worker advocates were stunned over the sudden decision to exclude correctional facilities from the heat rules – a move they said appeared to be a backdoor way to bury the regulations.

"The prison issue touches a nerve," said Stephen Knight, executive director of Worksafe, a workplace safety advocacy group based in the city of Oakland.

"Until we provide strong protections – labour, health, safety – for all workers in our country, really all of us are at risk," Knight told Context by phone.

The blow-up over the correctional facilities carve-out will further delay the implementation of rules which proponents say are desperately needed as climate change fuels hotter conditions that increase the risk of heat-related injury and illness.

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The move was "in recognition of the unique implementation challenges the existing text may pose for local and state correctional facilities to comply," said a spokesperson for the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR).

The revised proposal could get a vote in the coming weeks following the end of a public consultation in May, but any other hiccups could drag implementation well into the hottest summer months - or even longer.

"We were taken aback by what appeared to be a last-minute, backroom manoeuvre to kill the protections that California workers desperately need," Knight said.

Heat protections lacking

Only a handful of states, including California, have enacted specific heat protections for workers who do their jobs either indoors or in the open air. The state passed rules for outdoor workers in 2005.

The federal government started the process to implement its own rules for indoor and outdoor work settings in 2021, but final implementation could be years away.

Workers in correctional facilities, whether staff such as nurses and security guards or incarcerated people doing maintenance or other jobs, frequently face sweltering conditions in poorly ventilated, decades-old buildings ill-prepared for extreme heat.

"(Often) all they have is swamp coolers and shop fans and when those things go out, it's not like they're like 'oh OK, you don't have to work anymore' - the work is expected to continue at all times," said Jeronimo Aguilar with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an advocacy group for incarcerated people based in Oakland.

Inmates sort laundry at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Inmates sort laundry at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Inmates sort laundry at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Aguilar and others want California to join a handful of states that have formally ended what critics say is an exception in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery that allows for involuntary servitude as punishment for incarcerated populations.

"There's a direct correlation there ... (the notion that the) incarcerated population ... don't need to be treated as (humanely) as anybody else," he said.

The new heat protection rules would require employers to provide accessible drinking water and maintain one or more "cool-down areas" at all times while employees are present, among other measures.

The rate of heat-related illness for workers in California increased from about 3.5 per 100,000 workers in 2000 to 10 per 100,000 workers in 2017, according to an August 2023 report from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

"The higher the heat, the greater the risk of all kinds of injuries to workers," Knight said.

Cost concerns

Concerns over cost appear to be what tripped things up this year.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) said an economic analysis of the earlier regulations incorrectly identified first-year costs for state facilities that would have required billions of dollars in "immediate extensive capital improvements".

"To ensure that correctional facilities are covered, CDCR has been working with Cal/OSHA on an industry-specific regulation for state and local correctional facilities, taking into account the unique operational realities of those worksites," the spokesperson said.

State prisons already have heat plan coordinators responsible for monitoring indoor and outdoor temperatures, and housing units in the prison system have forms of cooling relief such as evaporative coolers and fans.

"It's a frustrating process," said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate with Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group.

"They're running a budget deficit, and (Governor Gavin) Newsom's doing everything he can to try to minimise that deficit and this was just one thing that ultimately got caught up in that."

The conditions faced by prison and jail workers are at least starting to attract attention, Aguilar said.

"I was glad to hear that OSHA is kind of coming around on this issue and their antennas are up, like hey, what about this population?" Aguilar said. 

(Reporting by David Sherfinski; Editing by Helen Popper.)

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