Keeping Workers Safe from Heat

Representative Judy Chu Announces the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Act

It was just over a year ago – July 6, 2018. A heat wave was roasting the Los Angeles area, with the temperature hitting 117 degrees in Woodland Hills.

U.S. Postal Service worker Peggy Frank was making her rounds in that San Fernando Valley community that day when she was overcome by the brutal conditions. The 63-year-old was later found dead in her truck, her body simply overheating. The official cause of death was hyperthermia, with the Occupational Safety and Hazards Administration (OSHA) later holding the Postal Service liable after an investigation.

Now, Rep. Judy Chu, whose district includes South Pasadena, has introduced federal legislation to protect workers from fates similar to Frank’s.

Chu, a Democrat, last week unveiled the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act — named for another worker who died a preventable death from heat stroke after working 10 hours straight in 105-degree temperatures.

During her time in the Assembly, Chu pushed a similar law that made California the first state in the nation to require paid shade and water breaks for workers. Her new bill would take those rules to the federal level, requiring OSHA to mandate national safety requirements.

With high temperatures hitting Southern California once again, it also serves as a reminder for workers to take precautions against potentially dangerous weather conditions.

Besides paid breaks in cool spaces, Chu’s bill would require limitations of how long workers – whether working outdoors or indoors – can be exposed to extreme heat; and direct employers to provide training to workers regarding risk factors, as well as guidance on how to treat heat-related symptoms.

“Every day, workers around the country, whether on a farm or in a warehouse, work in 100-degree temperatures or more just to feed their own families and the country,’’ Chu said.

“But that exposure to high heat puts workers at risk of heat stroke or heat exhaustion. Even in just a single eight- to 10- hour shift, a worker can fall into a coma and die.

“According to a 2015 study by OSHA, exposure to heat led to 37 work-related deaths and 2,830 nonfatal occupation injuries and illnesses. And it’s only expected to get worse. A new report released (two weeks ago) found that rising temperatures from global warming could cost the global economy as much as $69 trillion by 2100, thanks in part to the impact on workers’ health.’’

Chu also said: “And yet, OSHA does not have a federal standard that requires the breaks, shade, or water that we know can save lives. Heat-stress-related deaths are 100 percent preventable, which is what makes stories like that of Asuncion Valdivia … so tragic.

“Nobody else should suffer a similar fate when all it takes to save them is a break. … Extending those protections to all workers should be common sense.’’

Shortly after Frank’s 2018 death, Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, interim health officer for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, stressed certain guidelines workers should follow in extreme-heat conditions.

“If it’s really hot, and it’s over 110 (degrees), you should take a 15-minute break every hour and have mandatory hydration,” Gunzenhauser said, per the Los Angeles Daily News. “You have to insist on it. You can’t do heavy exertion (without breaks.)”