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It’s the coolest summer of the rest of your life, but ROC is fired up.

New Report - Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

By Colleen Koperek, ROC United

Restaurant kitchens are hot even on a cool day, and as the temperatures rise, so does the need for building worker power to combat excessive indoor heat. And that’s why we are calling on OSHA to address occupational extreme heat by centering worker’s voices.

So to do that, in 2022 ROC collected over 500 responses across all 50 states and Puerto Rico. We found that heat in restaurant kitchens frequently is dangerously high, and its effects are often unmitigated by employers. Restaurant workers described alarmingly hot working conditions resulting in heat exhaustion, heat stroke, sudden fainting, vomiting, affected cognitive abilities, exacerbated or new long-term health problems, and dehydration. They also spoke about measures employers could take to mitigate these dangers, but they do not do so routinely.

But don’t just take our word for it, hear from the worker’s themselves:

“The heat during the summer would get so bad that temps inside the shop could hit triple digits. Frosting would slide off doughnuts on the rack. Team members passed out with such frequency that it was just considered inevitable,” said a worker in Oregon.

Another worker in Virginia added, “I’m only 19 and in [good] health. But, almost daily, I just feel sick to my stomach from the heat, to the point where I haven’t had the appetite to eat. I’ve even thrown up mid-shift due to the conditions.”

In Montana, Stephen H. recounted,“I have personally watched people have heat stroke in restaurant lines due to extreme heat. I have become physically ill and vomited during periods of extreme heat. Severe dehydration is commonplace and a known fact of life for kitchen workers, and it is wrong.”

The toll on worker’s health doesn’t stop the grueling pace of kitchen work, as Jane C. described, “the line cook next to me fainted from the heat. We stepped over his body to cook during the lunch rush.”

When restaurant workers get hurt at work, they often don’t have insurance to cover their medical needs. As of 2018, about 38% of cooks and 47% of dishwashers did not receive health insurance from their employer. This leaves workers more vulnerable to financial catastrophe from injuries and illnesses caused by on-the-job heat and increases the likelihood that an easily treatable condition will progress to a more serious illness or death.

Many back of house workers who responded to our request for comments described working in kitchens where there was no HVAC system, or it was frequently broken in months when AC was needed the most.

One worker in Ohio recounted, “last summer the restaurant I worked at didn’t have AC, their solution was to give us Popsicles. A man ended up passing out due to the heat.”

ROC United sees extreme indoor heat as an equity issue, as the majority of restaurant workers are women and people of color. So what we propose in our report is calling on OSHA to:

  • Seek worker participation and input in decision making,
  • For the heat standard rule to be written in accessible language for kitchen workers,
  • Ensure that workers get enough breaks,
  • Ensure that all workers and managers know emergency procedures for heat stroke,
  • Require that employers maintain records of all heat related incidents,
  • Allow workers to report heat related incidents to OSHA without retaliation, regardless of immigration status, and
  • To restrict licenses to kitchens that do not have the proper ventilation systems built in to create safe working conditions.

To introduce our report on extreme heat and call on OSHA to pass an indoor heat standard, we held a press conference with Asheville Food and Beverage United, Democracy Forward, National COSH and Restaurant Workers United where we heard from restaurant workers and advocates.

“What would help is a temperature standard, working air conditioning units, mandatory set breaks and we don’t have great access to water on the line,” said Ariana, a worker with AFBU.

Arizona restaurant worker Lindsay spelled it out: “We should not have to put our health and safety at risk when we come to work. To have been treated in this way was dangerous and dehumanizing. Regulations around heat exposure would add sorely needed guardrails for an industry that has shown itself incapable of meeting these standards any other way.”

For 31 days straight, Phoenix hit at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and the forecast called for 112-plus degree days to return later in the week. This is becoming a common scenario in different parts of the country.

“Climate change is affecting everybody, more and more AC units are failing creating more and more dangerous environments across the board,” added Lindsay Ruck, member of ROC United.

“Every day I get a heat advisory cuz it’s over 100 degrees. Every single day it’s really hot outside, it does seem to be getting worse. This trend is going to continue and if we don’t have standards in kitchens, conditions are going to deteriorate for the workers back there,” said Caleb of RWU.

“It’s an infrastructure problem. [Broken equipment], that’s a cost that owners don’t want to pay for. It’s not a new issue, it’s not having a standard has allowed it to be an issue. Our boss won’t fix our AC because it doesn’t affect the customers in the dining area, where it’s 70 degrees. It’s easily 100 in the kitchen,” said Ariana.

As Elizabeth H. in Texas told us in our survey, “There’s lots of reasons that heat can build up in a kitchen, and it happens all too easily when it’s already 100 degrees outside.”

And that’s why worker power is critical to fight against the man-made conditions that contribute to climate change and the increasingly extreme heat felt worldwide. We can bring in all the Gatorade in the world, freeze all the side towels and eat all the popsicles, but ultimately, we must pass regulations to mandate an indoor heat standard and fight climate change.

ROC United urges OSHA to pass an inclusive, effective and enforceable rule that provides federal heat safety standards for all workers, including restaurant workers.

Colleen Koperek is a national digital organizer at ROC United, a national restaurant worker rights’ group.