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Kitchen Workers Demand Federal Protections Against Excessive Heat

Back-of-the-house workers are becoming ill or dying due to excessive heat — so they’re organizing the kitchen.

Ever since she became old enough to work, Ariana Lingerfeldt has found cooking jobs in cafes and restaurants. “It’s something I’m good at,” she told Truthout. For the past two years, her workplace has been the Green Sage Cafe in South Asheville, North Carolina. The eatery unionized in February 2023 and is part of Teamsters Local 61; staff are now among the 3 percent of workers in the Tar Heel state who are organized.

But while Lingerfeldt is proud of this victory, and is proud of her pro-union activism at Green Sage, she says that conditions in the cafe’s kitchen remain deplorable.

Kitchen temperatures can get to 80 or 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, she says, and reach 100 or more during the summer. “At any one time there are two cooks and one dishwasher in the kitchen. There’s a box fan on the floor but this summer, when it’s been particularly hot, I start to feel sluggish. It’s as if my brain shuts down.”

Lingerfeldt says drinking ice water helps, but to get a drink, she has to step away from the line and leave her coworker alone. “We don’t have scheduled breaks during our shifts,” she said. “This is why we’re pushing OSHA to create mandatory cooling standards for restaurant workers and are negotiating a contract that will improve the health and safety of staff at Green Sage.” This will include protection from excessive heat and mandate scheduled breaks throughout each shift.

It’s a big mission.

Since her work with the union began, Lingerfeldt has become involved in other efforts to improve the industry, and has joined campaigns organized by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, a national organization that works to improve conditions and salaries in the food services industry, and Asheville Food and Beverage United, a local project that seeks to empower the city’s workers. Developing protocols to mitigate excessive heat is a primary goal of both groups.

The need is obvious.

Beat the Heat: Restaurant Workers Fight for a Safe and Dignified Work Environment,” a study recently released by ROC United, lays out the stakes. According to the report, excessive heat increases the likelihood of workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities. Among kitchen workers, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are common, with symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, fainting, stomach cramps, vomiting, circulatory irregularities, as well as the mental fatigue and disorientation that Lingerfeldt described. What’s more, chronic dehydration can lead to long-term kidney damage, renal failure or death.

“Restaurant workers’ need for heat protections will only increase with the effects of climate change,” the report concludes. “Elevated temperatures have been exacerbated by debilitating heat which is occurring with regularity across the U.S.”

Indeed, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agree that the last nine years have been the hottest on record.

Restaurant workers knew this long before the official confirmation. They’re now demanding better.

Cullen Page has been employed by an Austin, Texas, pizzeria since 2018, and has seen the direct impact of temperature increases on him and his coworkers. Speaking at a press conference to announce the release of “Beat the Heat,” Page noted that this summer, he has received near-daily heat advisory alerts on his phone. “In past years, this happened just a few times during the summer months,” he said. “The heat is getting worse and this trend is going to continue. If we don’t have standards regarding excessive heat in kitchens, workplace conditions will deteriorate and workers will suffer.”

Page’s own situation is a case in point. “I get stomach cramps and have a heat rash from standing in front of an uninsulated 550-degree oven,” he explained. “Other workers have had seizures. We constantly feel heat stress and I can feel my body and brain giving up.”

What’s more, he says that the heat has inflamed tensions and conflicts between staff and managers who typically minimize the workers’ concerns, as if to say, If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. “Federal regulations can help create safer standards for restaurant workers,” Page adds. “We need clear regulations that management can abide by. If this means installing swamp coolers in pizzeria kitchens, that’s for them to figure out.”

Not surprisingly, the impact of excessive worksite heat disproportionately falls on immigrants and people of color. In the restaurant industry, for example, the “Beat the Heat” report finds that 60 percent of staff doing back-of-the-house jobs — fry, grill, and prep cooks, sous chefs, cleaners and dishwashers — are people of color. Adding to the indignity, it continues, 38 percent of cooks and 47 percent of dishwashers lack employer-provided health insurance.

And they are not the only laborers to feel the heat — and suffer from it. Construction workers, tree trimmers, lawn care specialists, farmworkers, trash collectors, mail carriers, warehouse workers, roofers and road crews are among the millions of workers who are largely unprotected from weather or temperature-related conditions.

The crisis is so dire, in fact, that earlier this month, the Biden-Harris administration ordered the Department of Labor to issue Heat Hazard Alerts and ramp up inspections at outdoor workplaces, including agricultural fields.

Farmworkers, of course, are especially vulnerable to climate change, a situation that is made worse by the fact that at least 400,000 are in the U.S. as temporary guest workers who are expected to return home when their seasonal employment ends. Elizabeth Henderson, a retired organic farmer now on the board of the Agricultural Justice Project, told Truthout that their status as H-2a guest workers puts them in a precarious position. “They don’t open their mouths for fear of being sent home” before their period of authorized employment ends, Henderson said.

The upshot of this lack of workplace protection can literally be deadly: Between 2011 and 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics attributed at least 436 workplace deaths to heat exposure. Record keeping on workplace deaths from excessive heat is not mandated, and since there are no federal protections in place other than a vague OSHA rule advising employers to keep their workers (not just in the restaurant industry but everywhere) safe, we have no real way of knowing exactly how many workers have perished due to unsafe conditions or excessive exposure to heat and humidity.

Conditions are grim. Nonetheless, some relief may be in the offing.

Despite widespread GOP opposition to imposing health and safety rules on employers — in one infamous example, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed House Bill 2027 to nullify local laws that mandated 10-minute water breaks every four hours for construction workers — labor activists are exerting unprecedented pressure to demand that OSHA develop federal protocols to protect workers exposed to high temperatures, and do it soon.

This is not their only tactic and OSHA is not their only target.

Restaurant staff and their allies, for example, have also reached out to pro-labor legislators in statehouses throughout the country. They know that OSHA’s process is notoriously slow; if history is any guidepost, it will take the agency between seven and eight years — until 2029 or 2030 — to finalize its regulations, a timeframe they deem unacceptable.

Their efforts are paying off. Already, momentum for state action is building and several states — California, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — have enacted protections for impacted workers. Unfortunately, the standards are not uniform; some, like California, offer minimal protections when temperatures hit 80°F. In Washington State, however, protections do not kick in until temperatures reach 89°F.

Clearly, much more is needed.

“When OSHA first posted that the agency wanted to enact standards regarding excessive heat, ROC made clear that we want them to create regulations that best serve the needs of workers,” Teofilo Reyes, chief program officer at ROC United said at the press conference. “It is time for them to speed up. OSHA has enough information to come up with a strong proposal for protecting workers. Congress can also pass interim legislation on this.”

Like state lawmakers, numerous Congresspeople have recognized the urgency of enacting protective orders and legislation is currently pending in both the House and Senate. The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury and Fatality Prevention Act of 2023, named for a 53-year-old farmworker who died in 2004 after picking grapes in 105-degree heat, has gained traction and will require employers to provide paid water and shade breaks for both indoor and outdoor workers, as well as train staff about what to do if workers develop heat-related illnesses or injuries. Moreover, attorneys general from California, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have indicated their support of the measure and are joining activists from Public Citizen, Democracy Forward, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, Unite HERE, the United Farm Workers, ROC United, and other pro-labor groups to bring attention to the more than 170,000 U.S. workers who incur heat-related injuries each year. They are also making sure that folks understand that when temperatures exceed 90 degrees, there is a 6 to 9 percent increase in workplace accidents and illnesses.

In addition, “Beat the Heat” offers restaurateurs concrete suggestions for the immediate mitigation of dangerous temperatures and intolerable workplace conditions. These include guaranteeing that workers can hydrate and take frequent rest breaks; ventilating and cooling areas around ovens, stove tops and heat-producing equipment; rotating staff so that no one works on grills for more than three consecutive days; training employees and supervisors in how best to prevent heat-related illnesses; providing shaded areas for cooling down and rest; creating emergency response procedures for staff who become ill; offering safety training in the languages spoken by staff; requiring record keeping to inform OSHA of all heat-related illnesses and deaths; and prohibiting retaliation against workers who report violations.

“If OSHA creates and enforces heat standards, workers will be able to make headway in the food services industry,” North Carolina labor activist Ariana Lingerfeldt concludes. “Staff at Green Sage made a decision to hold down the fort and stick together to make the cafe a better place to work. Instead of job hopping from one restaurant to another, we’re staying put and taking on this fight.”

She hopes that other restaurant workers will be inspired by their example.

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