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2021 Warehouse workers and extreme heat

More warehouse workers toiling in extreme heat;
Temperatures at facilities can hover above 90
degrees for hours; state officials have not yet
finalized regulations
Phillips, Anna M . Los Angeles Times ; Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]. 12 Oct 2021: A.1.
ProQuest document link
When Rite Aid Corp. decided to build a giant warehouse to serve its Southern California stores in 1999, it chose an
isolated stretch of the Mojave Desert where the air vibrates with heat in the summer.
The land was cheap. The freeway was nearby. But during summers, the workers are boiling inside the mostly nonair-conditioned warehouse.
They say their leg muscles cramp and their hearts race. They sweat through their clothes. Made sluggish by the
heat, they struggle to pull products at the pace the company sets, incurring demerits that threaten their jobs.
In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, Rite Aid workers said at least three employees fell ill with heat
exhaustion in June, when an unusually severe heat wave descended on Southern California. Two became so
dehydrated that they needed IV bags of saline solution to replenish lost fluids.
Workers say supervisors responded to their complaints with promises to install more fans in the warehouse, which
at nearly 1 million square feet is large enough to fit three Walt Disney Concert Halls. But even when they've
followed through, it's had little effect as Southland temperatures rise.
Marleni Ortiz is all too familiar with the rapid heart rate and headaches that signal the onset of heat exhaustion.
The 27-year-old said she was on the verge of collapsing in the warehouse twice this summer.
At home, Ortiz sometimes sits on her bed before work and contemplates her life. "Do I really need to go?" she asks
"But I have two kids. I need the income. It's really depressing because it's so hot in there," she said.
The conditions inside Rite Aid's Lancaster facility underscore the dangers facing warehouse workers across
California, where major retailers are expanding aggressively against a backdrop of increasing temperatures.
Fueled by customers' growing addiction to one-day delivery and a pandemic-driven surge in online shopping,
demand for warehouses has skyrocketed. As land near major ports and cities becomes scarcer and pricier,
developers are heading deeper into the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, where temperatures are rising faster
than in coastal communities. Low-wage workers, most of them Black and Latino, are facing increased risks as they
follow the job boom to some of the hottest parts of California, into warehouses that industry experts say are
mostly not air-conditioned.
While the White House has recently taken up the issue, state regulations limiting indoor temperatures have been
long delayed. The state doesn't require indoor air conditioning.
The Times interviewed more than two dozen warehouse workers, logistics industry experts and advocates for
workers' rights, and reviewed documentation of a worker's heat complaint obtained through a public records
request. They described how increasing temperatures are jeopardizing warehouse workers' health and safety at a
time when demand for workers willing to take these jobs is growing.
Rite Aid workers thought they'd made progress in 2011 when, after years of negotiations, a majority of the
warehouse's 500 employees approved a union contract with new rules to prevent heat illness. But a decade later,
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workers at the huge facility say the protective measures they fought for are insufficient in the face of record heat.
In 2016, the state enacted a law requiring California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as
Cal/OSHA, to set limits on indoor heat. Those limits are still under review. Even if the state eventually enacts an
indoor heat standard, it's not clear that Cal/OSHA is capable of enforcing it. The agency's ranks are thin; it has
been underfunded for years. An agency spokesman said Rite Aid workers have filed three complaints about indoor
heat since 2015. None resulted in a penalty.
Rite Aid spokesman Bradley Ducey said the company has been working with its employees and their union to
address the higher temperatures. He said the company has installed more fans, opened doors in the evening to let
in cooler air and allowed workers to take rest breaks and access "cooling spots." He said Rite Aid shifts its
employees' work hours during the hot summer months to cooler parts of the day -- though employees said this
effort has been impeded by demands for mandatory overtime.
"We constantly review and evolve our policies, and seek feedback on indoor temperature management in
partnership with Cal OSHA and union representatives," Ducey wrote in an email.
Eight workers said there is only one work area in the warehouse that's air-conditioned -- the chocolate room, where
Rite Aid employees inventory and sort bags of Hershey's Kisses and Snickers bars before they're sent to
drugstores across the Southland.
Debbie Fontaine, who has worked in the warehouse for 21 years, said it's common for supervisors to walk
employees to the chocolate room when they begin to feel faint from the heat.
"We have this giant frickin' refrigerated room to keep the chocolate from melting. While people are practically ...
dropping off," Fontaine said.
-The logistics empire
Stirred by reports of deaths in the Pacific Northwest after a record-breaking heat wave this summer, when
temperatures reached a high of 116 degrees in Portland, workers' advocates and politicians have seized on the
plight of millions of farmworkers, construction workers and other outdoor laborers. And for good reason -- climate
change has already warmed the world by 2 degrees Fahrenheit and is making heat waves more frequent and more
intense, exposing outdoor workers to extreme heat with deadly consequences.
Yet the conditions faced by indoor workers in garment factories, steam-filled restaurant kitchens and warehouses
have received far less attention. A new study from researchers at UCLA and Stanford suggests that indoor workers
in California, like outdoor workers, are more likely to be injured on the job when temperatures climb into the 90s,
and that work injuries linked to extreme heat are vastly undercounted in official records.
But climate change hasn't stopped the warehousing and logistics industry from building in inhospitably hot
According to data provided by the research firm CoStar Group, since 2010 more than 400 new warehouses, each
over 100,000 square feet, have been built in the Inland Empire, where triple-digit summertime temperatures are
normal. Today, about 10% of all warehouses in the United States are located in this part of Southern California,
according to Paul Granillo, president of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, an industry-affiliated group.
New warehouses continue to spring up east of the old ones in high-heat cities such as Beaumont and Banning in
Riverside County, and Victorville and Hesperia along the southern edge of the Mojave Desert.
"This trend was already growing," Granillo said, "but the pandemic has just supercharged it."
The Coachella Valley, which matched its all-time high of 123 degrees in June, could be next, he added.
Exactly how many warehouse workers are getting sick and dying from extreme heat is impossible to say.
Cal/OSHA does not track this information, and employees are often reluctant to endanger their jobs by reporting
injuries or illnesses.
Some warehouse employees have banded together to demand better conditions, winning concessions at a few
work sites. They are the exception. Industry experts said that most warehouses continue to rely on large fans and
industrial exhaust systems to circulate air. Only managers' offices and employee break rooms are typically airPDF GENERATED BY PROQUEST.COM
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Fans can help employees stay cool, especially in humid environments that make it difficult for sweat to evaporate.
But researchers have found that on blistering days, fans can make conditions worse by blowing hot air on workers'
already hot bodies.
The flaws of this approach were clear to Mariana Estrada, a UCLA graduate student who spent the summer of
2017 as a "picker" in one Amazon warehouse, known as ONT6, in Moreno Valley, a city in Riverside County. Estrada
said certain parts of the warehouse -- the hallways, human resources office and nurse's office, for example -- were
air-conditioned. The company maintains that the entire warehouse was air-conditioned, but Estrada said it was
extremely hot where she worked. There were fans at the end of every other aisle. If she was told to fill orders near
the fans, it felt like she'd won the lottery, she said. But if not, the heat was brutal and the work physically
"They were always trying to get you to move faster," Estrada said. Supervisors sometimes chanted, "One step per
second," to get workers to pick up their feet. "In terms of heat vulnerability, that just adds another level to the
dangers workers experience."
Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said that although it's "not industry standard," the company is proud that all
of its California fulfillment centers are air-conditioned. But in addition to these centers, where employees pick, pack
and ship items, Amazon operates several other types of warehouses and facilities, some as large as 600,000
square feet, where inventory is sorted and grouped for shipment. When asked, Agrait did not say whether these are
also cooled.
The effectiveness of the warehouses' cooling systems is less clear. Several current and former Amazon employees
interviewed for this story said the fulfillment centers are cooler than the company's other warehouses, but that
parts of the buildings are still very hot. They said employees who load and unload trailers frequently complain
about being exposed to extreme temperatures during the summer months.
"The quality of AC seems to depend on which facility you are in and where you're located in the warehouse," said
Ellen Reese, a sociology professor at UC Riverside who studies labor conditions at Amazon in the Inland Empire
and whose research team has collected interviews with 82 current and former Amazon warehouse employees.
While some warehouse workers consider AC one of the perks of working for Amazon, Reese said, others say they
are too hot when temperatures climb.
Asked whether its warehouses are air-conditioned, Costco declined to comment. A Walmart spokesperson said the
company has made "significant and ongoing improvements to airflow" through the use of fans and other
measures, but declined to say whether its warehouses have air conditioning. Similarly, a spokesperson for Target
declined to answer questions about whether the company's warehouses are entirely air-conditioned. She said the
buildings have air-conditioning units and use a variety of other methods to control indoor temperatures.
A Home Depot spokesperson said the company has different types of temperature-controlled warehouses,
depending on the area of the state, the type of work being performed and how open the facility is to the outdoors.
She did not answer questions about whether any of them are air-conditioned.
The extreme temperatures warehouse workers face are avoidable, said Tim Shadix, legal director of the Warehouse
Worker Resource Center.
"There are food or pharmaceutical warehouses -- they have no problem keeping those climate-controlled," Shadix
said. "It's a profit thing, where they're not willing to do that to protect humans."
-Inside the warehouse
When Jesus Ramos finishes work during the summer, he doesn't race home. After hours inside the warehouse,
he's exhausted, his vision is blurry and his clothes are soaked with sweat. He fears he's in no condition to drive.
"I stay in the parking lot a little while, turn on my car with the AC on to try to cool my body down," he said. "That's
every day in the summer."
Temperatures inside the Rite Aid warehouse can climb to 90 degrees or higher and simmer there for hours,
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according to workers and a week's worth of the drugstore company's 2020 temperature records. Photos of
temperature readings workers shared with The Times show that on a scorching day last July, it was already 88
degrees inside the warehouse by 5:30 a.m.
Under the union contract, supervisors are required to give workers a five-minute break when temperatures reach
90. They get a 10-minute break when it hits 100 degrees. The union stewards carry their own digital heat monitors
to keep managers honest, but they acknowledge the breaks don't offer much relief.
By contrast, military personnel stationed at nearby Edwards Air Force Base are protected by heat regulations that
require 40 minutes of rest for every 20 minutes of work when they are performing moderate labor in temperatures
over 90 degrees.
Tap water is available for drinking, but some Rite Aid workers interviewed for this story said that what comes out
of the warehouse's faucets is "gray," "really dirty" and "doesn't taste like water." One employee said she brings in
six bottles of water every day. A Rite Aid spokesman said the company filters its water.
Some workers said they check the weather forecast in the morning and, on occasion, decide to stay home to avoid
the heat, forfeiting a day's pay.
When workers complain to supervisors, Ramos said, "their reaction is always, 'We can't do anything about it -- it's
upper management.' That's as far as it goes."
Ortiz, the employee who suffered two bouts of heat exhaustion, said she returned to the warehouse after her
second episode with a note from her doctor recommending that she be allowed to work in an air-conditioned space
for the rest of the summer. She was overheating, her joints ached and her psoriasis was flaring. She said Rite Aid
denied her request.
Some of the conditions workers described were difficult to independently verify. Rite Aid refused to allow a
reporter and photographer inside its Lancaster warehouse, and a company spokesman declined to answer
questions about Ortiz's experience or that of other employees.
Occupational health experts say most heat-related deaths and injuries occur among new hires who aren't used to
working in hot weather. But in just the last two years, at least four longtime Rite Aid warehouse employees have
fainted or come close to passing out from heat exhaustion, according to employees.
In August of 2020, Martha Ramos, who'd been at Rite Aid for nearly two decades, told the co-worker standing next
to her that she wasn't feeling well and then collapsed on the warehouse floor. By the time Ramos' assistant
manager found her, Ramos couldn't do much more than nod her head yes or no, according to records of the
supervisor's interview with Cal/OSHA. She took Ramos to an air-conditioned break room and held her shaking body
while they waited for an ambulance.
Ramos declined to be interviewed for this story, but the documents obtained by The Times through a public
records request show that when a warehouse manager reported her fall, he blamed her.
Safety manager Lee Gay wrote in his report that the incident was caused by Ramos' "failure to follow training" and
her "failure to hydrate properly." Beneath the question, "Why was the unsafe act committed?" Gay put Xs next to
"lack of knowledge or skills" and "improper job attitude." Nowhere on the form did he report that, according to Rite
Aid's own records, it was about 87 degrees inside the warehouse when Ramos passed out at 10:15 a.m. -- three
degrees below the threshold for rest breaks.
Gay did not respond to requests for comment.
Ramos told a Cal/OSHA investigator that she had consumed three 32-ounce bottles of water that morning. "No
matter how much water I drank, it would not cool me down," she said, according to the investigator's notes.
Cal/OSHA closed the investigation after finding that conditions inside the warehouse didn't violate state
-Regulating heat
The fight to set a limit on indoor heat in California workplaces is nearly 15 years old and still unfinished.
In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the first bill to pass the state Legislature that would have created an
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enforceable standard -- a temperature level above which the state considered it unsafe to work. He maintained that
California's workplace safety board was already looking into the question.
Schwarzenegger's position aligned with many of California's powerful business interests. Nine more years would
pass before the near-death of a warehouse worker in the Inland Empire prompted lawmakers to try again in 2016.
This time they were successful. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law, requiring Cal/OSHA to begin work on
The agency's records show that the California Chamber of Commerce argued for a rule that would only apply to
non-air-conditioned workplaces where the temperature was 95 degrees or higher. Advocates for workers' rights
insisted on a floor of no more than 80 degrees. The agency compromised, issuing a draft rule in 2019 that set a
limit of 87 degrees, or lower than 82 degrees if employees were wearing protective clothing or working near heatgenerating equipment. Those limits still haven't been finalized.
For now, the agency's inspectors have few tools at their disposal. They can cite an employer for not fixing a broken
air conditioner or for having an unsafe work environment. But without clear rules stating the temperature at which
heat is hazardous, most businesses face no threat of enforcement action. Cal/OSHA can't even say how many
complaints about indoor heat it has received. It doesn't count them.
In September, the Biden administration announced that it would draft the nation's first rules on workplace heat for
outdoor and indoor settings and would prioritize workplace inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80
As the state and the federal government consider whether and how to crack down on companies that are exposing
workers to extreme heat, warehouse operators and logistics companies are increasingly looking to robots. Across
the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, machines are picking, packing, lifting and unloading -- taking on some of
their human counterparts' most tedious and labor-intensive jobs.
Companies say this shift helps them survive during labor shortages. But it has the added benefit of introducing
robots that don't need bathroom breaks, can't join unions and can tolerate much colder and hotter temperatures
than humans.
"I can imagine some companies really hedging their bets and trying to wait out enough automation so that they
reduce human exposure to the heat," said Beth Gutelius, research director of the Center for Urban Economic
Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who studies workplace automation. "It's a pretty dark
Robots are not expected to displace large numbers of warehouse workers anytime soon, according to a study
Gutelius wrote in 2019. As e-commerce companies expand in California, signs advertising open positions are
Meanwhile, for the second time in two years, Cal/OSHA inspectors are investigating a complaint of unsafe
temperatures in the Rite Aid warehouse.
This time, the union local's president said, the complaint concerns an employee who has suffered heat exhaustion
twice in the last two years. She filed a complaint this summer after becoming so weak and disoriented that her
doctor urged her to find a new job.
To protect herself at work, she bought a small portable fan that she could wear around her neck. Other Rite Aid
workers did the same. Without it, she said, "somebody is going to be waking me up with smelling salts." She
ordered it from Amazon.
Caption: PHOTO: MARIANA ESTRADA, with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Climate Resolve, stands outside the
Amazon fulfillment center where she once worked in Moreno Valley. The heat was brutal, and the work was
physically demanding, she said.
PHOTOGRAPHER:Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times
PHOTO:DAVID OJEDA picks out items to be shipped at an Amazon fulfillment center in Moreno Valley. Such
centers are air-conditioned, the company said. Other similar warehouses may not be.
PHOTOGRAPHER:Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times
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PHOTO:RITE AID WORKERS Jesus Ramos, left, Debbie Fontaine, Sylvia Estrada and Martha Gontes have asked
managers to improve conditions for workers inside their warehouse.
PHOTOGRAPHER:Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times
PHOTO:RITE AID warehouse worker Debbie Fontaine displays a thermometer that some workers use to track
conditions on the job.
PHOTOGRAPHER:Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times
PHOTO:A MASSIVE RITE AID warehouse in Lancaster.
PHOTOGRAPHER:Brian van der Brug Los Angeles Times
P: GRAPHIC: Inland Empire warehouse growth
CREDIT:Los Angeles Times
Workers; Employees; Employment; Pandemics; Heat; Logistics; Supervisors;
Warehouses; Inventory
Business indexing term:
Subject: Workers Employees Employment Logistics Supervisors Warehouses
United States--US Southern California Mojave Desert California Inland Empire
Riverside County California
Company / organization:
Name: Rite Aid Corp; NAICS: 446110; Name: Occupational Safety &Health
Administration--OSHA; NAICS: 926150
Identifier / keyword:
Publication title:
Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.
Publication year:
Publication date:
Oct 12, 2021
Main News; Part A; National Desk
Los Angeles Times Communications LLC
Place of publication:
Los Angeles, Calif.
Country of publication:
United States, Los Angeles, Calif.
Publication subject:
General Interest Periodicals--United States
Source type:
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Copyright Los Angeles Times Oct 12, 2021
Last updated:
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