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A state committee recently voted unanimously to set long-awaited standards for indoor heating for workers in California. After a final legal review, the move will provide protection for millions of people who work in warehouses, kitchens and other workplaces where temperatures are becoming dangerously hot as the climate warms.

The committee, however, made one glaring exception – for prisons and jails. The state Department of Revenue had withdrawn its support for the standards in March, just as they were about to be adopted, arguing that the rules would cost prisons and jails billions of dollars. To save the regulations, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, exempted such facilities from the standards.

Opponents of the standards point to the high costs associated with installing and operating cooling systems, as well as providing more breaks and other opportunities to adapt to the heat. And adapting to climate change is indeed costly. Exempting prisons and jails from the rule may therefore seem like a simple, pragmatic way to reduce the cost of regulations that will undoubtedly be expensive anyway.

But research has shown that the regulations could save up to $875 million annually by preventing heat-related injuries among California workers. And the danger is growing: Last summer was the hottest on record, and this year's could turn out to be even hotter.

Extreme heat causes more deaths than any other extreme weather event or natural disaster, although these deaths are often difficult to detect and are often not included in official figures. Heat can also contribute to a range of illnesses and injuries, from kidney disease, strokes and exhaustion to workplace accidents. And heat can worsen underlying health problems.

In short, the need for indoor thermal regulation is clear. Implementing these rules as soon as possible can save lives, especially as the summer heat hits us.

Cal/OSHA has indicated that it may eventually develop separate standards for California jails and prisons, but it has taken nearly a decade to come this close to implementing standards for indoor heat in other facilities. Given the high cost of cooling prisons, the perception that air conditioning is a “luxury,” and the dehumanizing belief that inmates don't deserve such care, it is unlikely that there will be separate heat standards for such facilities anytime soon.

Yet the heat danger in California prisons and jails is undeniable. Inmates are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat for several reasons, including the location and design of prisons, their general lack of air conditioning and ventilation, the prevalence of health problems among prisoners that can be exacerbated by heat, and the use of psychotropic medications that exacerbate the effects of heat. Inmates are among those most affected by climate change.

California has a moral and legal obligation to ensure that inmates are protected from heat. As legal scholar Sharon Dorovich explains in detail, society's right to incarcerate anyone is based on a “penitentiary contract” the state has entered into that includes an “ongoing, positive obligation to meet the basic human needs” of inmates. The constitutional prohibition on cruel punishment makes this duty “non-negotiable.”

The state is not keeping its end of the bargain. A recent survey of California prison inmates found that two-thirds of respondents had experienced extreme heat and state plans to protect them were not being implemented.

Like adapting to climate change, incarcerating people is costly: California spends an estimated $132,860 in public funds per year to keep a person in custody. If we cannot meet these people's basic needs, we have an obligation to release them.

The state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office recently calculated that closing five California prisons would save $1 billion annually. Closing prisons under a plan developed by Californians United for a Responsible Budget could cover the cost of mitigating the remaining facilities. With 13,000 empty beds – a number expected to rise – we have the capacity to do it.

For a state in the red, downsizing a dilapidated and overburdened prison system makes financial sense. And as temperatures continue to rise, closing prisons and jails is an increasingly promising strategy for pragmatic and ethical climate adaptation that won't break the bank and saves lives.

2024 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Quote: California to finally introduce heating standards for workplaces – with a cruel exception (2024, July 11) accessed on July 11, 2024 by

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