Prison cooling costs upend indoor heat protections for Calif. workers

By Ariel Wittenberg | 04/29/2024 06:21 AM EDT

A last-minute reversal has worker safety officials scrambling to protect laborers from extreme heat this summer.

A worker pushes barrels of chili paste at a food factory in Irwindale, California.

A worker pushes barrels of chili paste at a food factory in Irwindale, California. David McNew/Getty Images

California worker safety officials are scrambling to revive indoor heat protections this month after the state Department of Finance unexpectedly reversed its approval of the regulations hours before they were set to be approved, citing compliance costs to correctional facilities.

The objection caught worker safety officials off guard. Now, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health is proposing to exempt state prisons from the regulation in the hope it could take effect “sometime this summer.” Officials have vowed to work on separate rules to protect the more than 39,000 incarcerated people with jobs in state prisons, and tens of thousands of guards, nurses and janitors who work in jails.

“CalOSHA intends to revise the package with a narrow exemption in recognition of the unique implementation challenges the existing text may pose for local and state correctional facilities,” the agency’s chief, Eric Berg, told the state Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board earlier this month. “We are committed to collaborating with the board and staff to keep an expedited timeline and ensure Californians have protections in place from indoor heat hazards this summer.”


Often thought of as a national leader in worker protections, California was the first state, in 2006, to issue rules protecting outdoor workers from heat. But it has lagged on establishing protections for indoor workers, blowing through a 2019 deadline set by state law. During the long wait for new regulations, seven California workers died from indoor heat exposure, according to a regulatory impact analysis.