Indoor Workers Need Protection From the Heat, Too

Rising temperatures and strict productivity standards make a brutal combination for Amazon warehouse workers. In Southern California, these workers are fighting to end the exclusion of indoor workers from basic workplace protection from the heat.

Amazon workers rally in front of their facility, KSBD, a major Amazon air hub in San Bernardino on October 14, 2022, to protest unsafe working conditions and to demand a wage increase. (Watchara Phomicinda / MediaNews Group / the Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

Anthony Wooden remembers when his coworker collapsed in front of him last summer. They were sorting packages inside an Amazon air freight facility during California’s hottest summer when his colleague became dizzy and disoriented. Wooden swiftly had him sit on a step stool, but it wasn’t fast enough: his coworker fainted from heat exhaustion.

Such heat exhaustion is a major concern for workers at the Amazon Air regional hub in San Bernardino. A survey conducted by Inland Empire Amazon Workers United indicated that workers need better access to water, a cool place to rest, and recovery time during the summer heat.

Since the hub opened in 2021, workers have had to take lifesaving measures into their own hands. Wooden has worked at the air freight facility KSBD since its launch but cannot recall a time when Amazon took initiative to protect warehouse workers from succumbing to heat illness.

KSBD is one of the 9,500 warehouses in the Inland Empire, the country’s largest warehouse hub. Like many such warehouses, KSBD has a nonunionized, highly monitored, and often seasonal workforce. The industry employs two hundred thousand in the Inland Empire alone at any given time; that population balloons to one million at peak consumption seasons.

“The only reason we have water coolers in the first place and fans, is not because they offered it, it’s because we took it. We had to confront them and demand these basic dignities in the workplace,” said Wooden in testimony to the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board in May. Amazon denies that any changes are needed.

KSBD is a 660,000 square foot air cargo facility at the San Bernardino International Airport with an indoor-outdoor assembly line that stretches onto a tarmac. Workers unload, sort, and reload packages onto planes fourteen times a day to fulfill Amazon’s one-day delivery promise.

“We never see a day of less than one hundred to two hundred thousand packages. That’s just divided between me and about a dozen or two of my buddies here,” said Wooden.

To meet quotas, Wooden and his colleagues at KSBD lift heavy boxes dozens of times an hour, walking and sometimes running in between.

“A regular workday for myself and for many of my coworkers includes sweating all day, the moment we walk in to the moment we walk out,” his coworker Anna Ortega says.

At this facility, workers have reported that the combination of heat with the physically demanding duties of the ten-hour shifts has caused headaches, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, nosebleeds, and fatigue among workers. During July’s heat wave, several workers passed out on the job, and some were taken out of the facility to hospitals, according to the Warehouse Worker Resource Center.

In response, workers have walked out and “marched on managers” for two summers in a row.

“It’s a cycle that’s not going to stop until we put a real standard in place,” said warehouse worker Daniel Rivera.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that produces legally binding standards for employers to follow lacks protections focused on heat. But California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) mandates employers to follow a heat standard to protect their outdoor workers from heat illness. Those in a warehouse, however, are excluded from this heat standard, because they are considered indoor workers — despite the environmental factors within the facility that exacerbate heat illness and fatality.

“Summer is one of the most brutal times for us indoor workers. The dryness and high temperatures mixed with high production and stress is a dangerous combination that could lead to serious and fatal injuries that could change our lives forever,” said Rivera.

That is why Wooden and his colleagues, who are part of Inland Empire Amazon Workers United, are pushing for an indoor heat standard in California. In May, they testified before the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board urging for a heat standard similar to the outdoor worker standard. Established in 2006, California’s outdoor heat standard is the most robust in the country.

Temperatures inside a warehouse tend to be the same or higher temperature than outdoors. According to a worker-led study last summer, the facility often surpassed 80 degrees Fahrenheit and has reached 95 degrees in loading areas. Amazon disputed this claim, asserting that warehouses are climate controlled and did not exceed 77 degrees. But the study showed real-time temperature stamps of the warehouse at 84 degrees, the cooling van at 90 degrees, and inside a cargo plane at 96 degrees.

According to Cal/OSHA’s proposed heat standard for indoor workers, temperatures would have to reach 82 degrees to trigger basic heat mitigation measures such as air-conditioning. At the May public hearing, Wooden and his colleagues critiqued the temperature requirement.

“This heat standard of 82 to 87 degrees is just way too high, because heat is just one of the factors we are dealing with in the workplace,” Wooden said.

Heat-related stress can occur from a variety of environmental factors beyond air temperature. Cal/OSHA recognizes that workload severity and duration is a major environmental factor. “We are in constant motion. Throughout the day, my shirt is soaked in sweat three to four times,” testified Sara Fee.

Other factors that contribute to heat-related stress include relative humidity, radiant heat, and air movement.

“My department specifically works in and around heavy machinery and conveyance that is running for hours on end during our shifts,” said Ortega. “Not only do they emit heat, but they also stop the airflow because of how big they are.”

Heat illness in these conditions is preventable. In fact, the vast majority of heat-related workplace deaths and illnesses can be prevented by access to water, rest, and cool-down areas. But in a recent piece for the Atlantic, former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA David Michaels argues that many employers will not take measures to prevent heat illness and death unless they are forced.

“How to prevent heat illness and death is no mystery: Provide workers with adequate rest breaks in the shade or a cool area where they can rehydrate,” he wrote. “But many employers will not do so unless they are forced, and unfortunately, OSHA is unlikely to require these basic protections any time soon.”

Why isn’t Amazon already instituting these simple measures to prevent heat illness? “Employers believe there is an infinite supply of workers willing to take the job, so they’d rather have you drop off and then replace you with someone else,” says Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center.

The draft heat standard would require Amazon to proactively give workers heat relief even if it disrupts productivity standards. If mitigation measures do not lower temperatures below 82 degrees, Amazon would have to limit exposure to the heat through measures that pause work, such as scheduling work earlier or later in the day, using work-rest schedules, reducing work intensity or speed, and reducing work hours.

But Amazon is not keen on reducing productivity. “These standards can be the balance between the mindset of production over workers and their safety that companies currently don’t have,” former KSBD worker Melissa Ojeda said.

Kaoosji highlighted the importance of the burden being put on the employer instead of on the worker to speak up and bring up a complaint. KSBD, like most warehouses, has a mix of temporary and full time workers.

“If you’re a temporary worker, you are on the bubble. Every day, theoretically, you can be just let go, not even fired. So if you speak up about your conditions, a lot of the time you are less likely to get called back by your manager,” Kaoosji said. “And if you’re a temporary worker who is incentivized to get that direct hire job, you’re incentivized to keep your mouth shut and try to just show you’re a good worker by working really fast.”

Organizers know that the indoor heat standard will not stop heat illness and fatality alone. Kaoosji, who was part of the organizing that led to the legislation requiring Cal/OSHA to produce an indoor worker heat standard in the first place, warns, “What is likely to be missing from this heavily compromised bill is strong protection for workers who speak up about heat issues against retaliation. Retaliation is a lynchpin for corporate power: the ability to terminate workers who speak up.”

That is why Kaoosji and others at the Warehouse Resource Center are fighting for SB 497 alongside the indoor heat standard. The legislation, introduced in February, would presume that an employer is retaliating against an employee for engaging in activity protected by the National Labor Relations Act if the employer disciplines an employee within ninety days of that protected activity.

“SB 497 would be a baby step to giving workers extra protections against retaliation. It’s not going to change the world, but it will give a little bit more argument when a worker speaks up and then is fired suspiciously later on. If someone speaks up about the heat and the next day they’re gone, the lesson for other workers is not to speak up,” said Kaoosji.

In a nonunionized workplace like KSBD, workers are more likely to be retaliated against for speaking up about on-the-job health and safety conditions. Warehouse workers without collective bargaining agreements do not have a clear process to speak up through contract negotiation or the grievance process. As long as employers have the ability to retaliate against workers for speaking up for heat protection or not meeting a productivity quota, they won’t access their rights outlined by a heat standard to the fullest extent.

San Bernardino was blasted with a scorching July, where temperature reached triple digits on nineteen days of the month. And just last week, the National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for San Bernardino with temperatures expected between 98 to 104 degrees. While OSHA urged those doing strenuous activity during this advisory to schedule frequent rest breaks in shaded or air-conditioned environments, indoor warehouse workers at KSBD were not empowered to follow that advice.