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Heat rules for California workers would also help keep schoolchildren cool

How Phoenix is preparing for record heat
How Phoenix is preparing for record summer heat 03:55

Sacramento, Calif. — Proposed rules to protect California workers from extreme heat would extend to schoolchildren, requiring school districts to find ways to keep classrooms cool.

If the standards are approved this month, employers in the nation's most populous state will have to provide relief to indoor workers in sweltering warehouses, steamy kitchens and other dangerously hot job sites. The rules will extend to schools, where teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers and other employees may work without air conditioning — like their students.

"Our working conditions are students' learning conditions," said Jeffery Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 120,000 teachers and other educational employees. "We're seeing an unprecedented change in the environment, and we know for a fact that when it's too hot, kids can't learn."

A state worker safety board is scheduled to vote on the rules June 20, and they would likely take effect this summer. The move, which marks Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom's latest effort to respond to the growing impacts of climate change and extreme heat, would put California ahead of the federal government and much of the nation in setting heat standards.

The standards would require indoor workplaces to be cooled below 87 degrees Fahrenheit when employees are present and below 82 degrees in places where workers wear protective clothing or are exposed to radiant heat, such as furnaces. Schools and other worksites that don't have air conditioning could use fans, misters, and other methods to bring the room temperature down.

The rules allow workarounds for businesses, including the roughly 1,000 school districts in the state, if they can't cool their workplaces sufficiently. In those cases, employers must provide workers with water, breaks, areas where they can cool down, cooling vests or other means to keep employees from overheating.

"Heat is a deadly hazard no matter what kind of work you do," said Laura Stock, a member of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board. "If you have an indoor space that is both populated by workers and the public, or in this case by children, you would have the same risks to their health as to workers."

Heat waves have historically struck outside of the school year, but climate change is making them longer, more frequent and more intense. Last year was the hottest on record and schools across the U.S. closed sporadically during spring and summer, unable to keep students cool.

Scientists say this year could be even hotter. School officials in Vicksburg, Mississippi, last month ended the school year early when air conditioners had issues. And California's first heat wave of the season is hitting while some schools are still in session, with temperatures reaching 105 in the Central Valley.

Several states, including Arizona and New Mexico, require schools to have working air conditioners, but they aren't required to run them. Mississippi requires schools to be air-conditioned but doesn't say to what temperature. Hawaii schools must have classrooms at a "temperature acceptable for student learning," without specifying the temperature. And Oregon schools must try to cool classrooms, such as with fans, and provide teachers and other employees ways to cool down, including water and rest breaks, when the heat index indoors reaches 80 degrees.

When the sun bakes the library at Bridges Academy at Melrose, a public school in East Oakland with little shade and tree cover, Christine Schooley closes the curtains and turns off the computers to cool her room. She stopped using a fan after a girl's long hair got caught in it.

"My library is the hottest place on campus because I have 120 kids through here a day," Schooley said. "It stays warm in here. So yeah, it makes me grouchy and irritable as well."

A 2021 analysis by the Center for Climate Integrity suggests nearly 14,000 public schools across the U.S. that did not need air conditioning in 1970 now do, because they annually experience 32 days of temperatures more than 80 degrees — upgrades that would cost more than $40 billion. Researchers found that same comparison produces a cost of $2.4 billion to install air conditioning in 678 California schools.

It's not clear how many California schools might need to install air conditioners or other cooling equipment to comply with the new standards because the state doesn't track which ones already have them, said V. Kelly Turner, associate director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at the University of California-Los Angeles.

And a school district in the northern reaches of the state would not face the same challenges as a district in the desert cities of Needles or Palm Springs, said Naj Alikhan, a spokesperson for the Association of California School Administrators, which has not taken a position on the proposed rules.

An economic analysis commissioned for the board provided cost estimates for a host of industries — such as warehousing, manufacturing, and construction — but lacked an estimate for school districts, which make up one of the largest public infrastructure systems in the state and already face a steep backlog of needed upgrades. The state Department of Education hasn't taken a position on the proposal and a spokesperson, Scott Roark, declined to comment on the potential cost to schools.

Projections of a multibillion-dollar cost to state prisons were the reason the Newsom administration refused to sign off on the indoor heat rules this year. Since then, tens of thousands of prison and jail employees — and prisoners — have been exempted.

It's also unclear whether the regulation will apply to school buses, many of which don't have air conditioning. The Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees the worker safety board, has not responded to queries from school officials or KFF Health News.

Libia Garcia worries about her 15-year-old son, who spends at least an hour each school day traveling on a hot, stuffy school bus from their home in the rural Central Valley community of Huron to his high school and back. "Once my kid arrives home, he is exhausted; he is dehydrated," Garcia said in Spanish. "He has no energy to do homework or anything else."

The California Federation of Teachers is pushing state lawmakers to pass a climate-resilient schools bill that would require the state to develop a master plan to upgrade school heating and air conditioning systems. Newsom last year vetoed similar legislation, citing the cost.

Campaigns to cool schools in other states have yielded mixed results. Legislation in Colorado and New Hampshire failed this year while bills in New Jersey and New York were pending as of June 6. Last month, a teachers union in New York brought a portable sauna to the state Capitol to demonstrate how hot it can get inside classrooms, only a quarter of which have air conditioning, said Melinda Person, president of New York State United Teachers.

"We have these temperature limits for animal shelters. How is it that we don't have it for classrooms?" said Democratic New York Assembly member Chris Eachus, whose bill would require schools to take relief measures when classrooms and buildings reach 82 degrees. "We do have to protect the health and safety of the kids."

Extreme heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the U.S. — deadlier than hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes. Heat stress can cause heatstroke, cardiac arrest and kidney failure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,600 heat-related deaths occurred in 2021, which is likely an undercount because health care providers are not required to report them. It's not clear how many of these deaths are related to work, either indoors or outdoors.

California has had heat standards on the books for outdoor workers since 2005, and rules for indoor workplaces have been in development since 2016 — delayed, in part, because of the covid pandemic.

At the federal level, the Biden administration has been slow to release a long-awaited regulation to protect indoor and outdoor workers from heat exposure. Although an official said a draft is expected this year, its outlook could hinge on the November presidential election. If former President Donald Trump wins, it is unlikely that rules targeting businesses will move forward.

The Biden White House held a summit on school sustainability and climate change in April, at which top officials encouraged districts to apply an infusion of new federal dollars to upgrade their aging infrastructure. The administration also unveiled an 18-page guide for school districts to tap federal funds.

"How we invest in our school buildings and our school grounds, it makes a difference for our students' lives," Roberto Rodriguez, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said at the summit. "They are on the front line in terms of feeling those impacts."

This article was produced by KFF Health News, a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling and journalism. KFF Health News is the publisher of California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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