Daniel Melling, UCLA
California’s agricultural and other outdoor workers have always labored under hot conditions, especially in arid Southern California, but the effects of global warming are now increasing their exposure to extreme heat and wildfire smoke.
To provide more protections for outdoor workers, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia introduced legislation this month that would direct California’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety to develop a new “ultrahigh” heat standard and strengthen air quality protections. The bill was supported by research from students in UCLA School of Law’s California Environmental Legislation and Policy Clinic, an experiential learning course that provides students with hands-on training in environmental lawmaking.
The future standard would include mandatory measures like work breaks, increased monitoring for heat sickness, and access to cool water and shade structures when temperatures exceed 105 degrees Fahrenheit, building on existing rules that kick in at 80 degrees. If passed, the bill would also direct Cal/OSHA to lower the air quality threshold for employers to distribute respiratory protective equipment to workers, reducing workers’ exposure to harmful particulate matter pollution from wildfires and other sources. Current Cal/OSHA rules require mandatory respirators when the air quality index, an EPA measure for reporting air quality, exceeds 500, indicating hazardous conditions. The legislation directs Cal/OSHA to set new rules at a threshold of 200 or lower.
“This bill would help protect workers from really oppressive conditions,” said Julia Stein, supervising attorney for the clinic and project director at UCLA’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “The bill would direct Cal/OSHA to set an extreme heat standard which we don’t have yet in California, and to trigger protections for air quality much sooner — the current threshold is at a point where the air is basically unbreathable.”
Scores of workers in California have died from heat-related illnesses since 2005, when California’s first outdoor heat standard went into effect. Research by UCLA public policy professor R. Jisung Park finds that high temperatures increase risks of both heat illness and workplace accidents in indoor and outdoor settings, estimating that excess heat causes around 15,000 injuries in the state each year. Heat waves in California often coincide with wildfires — exacerbating harmful health effects on outdoor workers.
To support the proposed standards, students in the clinic studied existing state and federal laws and conducted interviews with a dozen community groups representing agricultural workers in the Coachella Valley.
“The clinic gave me an understanding of how policy is crafted, from research and writing to collecting the right information and organizing it into recommendations,” said Jasmine Robinson, a second-year law student.
Based on the interviews and their extensive research of existing federal and state rules, the students proposed several policy options for Garcia’s office to pursue. The legislation introduced last month reflects student recommendations to strengthen high heat and air quality protections.
In the past, clinical students’ research has supported wildfire legislation, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, and measures to address sea-level rise. The clinic was first offered in 2019 and complements the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, providing law students with year-round opportunities for hands-on training in environmental law. Beth Kent, an Emmett/Frankel Fellow and a 2018 graduate of UCLA Law, co-taught the clinic last fall.
In addition to the heat standard legislation, students in the clinic last fall supported legislation to curb single-use plastic waste and a comment letter to the California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, on its new public health standard. Students also developed a white paper on potential reforms to California’s complex water laws.
“The hardest part of our research was distilling a few takeaway lessons for California — and the biggest lesson I learned was to ask for help,” said third-year student Kelsey Manes, who received guidance from reference librarian Caitlin Hunter to find and draw conclusions from a vast set of materials.
Their extensive research prepared students to share their proposals with legislators and their expert staffs.
“One of the biggest challenges was to do enough research to speak with confidence to lawmakers who are really well-versed on the topic,” said Reilly Nelson, a third-year student. “We wanted to be confident that our ideas were new and relevant, especially when talking to our clients, who are experts on these issues.”
Nelson, who researched political successes and failures of comprehensive plastics legislation in other states, said the clinic’s hands-on learning provided a unique learning experience and insight into how legislators develop policy proposals in concert with the interests of their constituents. “So much of law school is based on casebooks,” she said. “The clinic gave us an alternative perspective on what legislation is politically feasible in addition to what is ‘ideal.’”
In her post-graduation job at a law firm, Nelson plans to apply her new knowledge to help clients navigate the law. “Once you have a chance to work on legislation, you realize how interpreting the law is challenging and how the language might differ from what was envisioned at the start,” she said. “You get a sense of the overall design of the law, not just a snippet.”
Justin Breck, whose work focused on California’s water laws, interviewed a dozen experts from a range of perspectives, including advocates who had worked on litigation defending growers and irrigators, former staff lawyers for the California attorney general and nonprofit experts. Ahead of each call, Breck spent time crafting questions tailored to the interview subject, developing a critical skill for lawyers. “It felt like practice in how to create and ask meaningful questions to elicit useful information,” he said.
The clinic provides vital experience and support for students seeking public interest careers in environmental law. After Robinson expressed interest in a policy career, Stein and Kent made introductions and supported her application for an environmental diversity fellowship, leading to an internship this spring with Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell to support the county’s phase out of oil and gas drilling, and a summer position with the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, where Robinson will work on environmental justice issues.
“The clinic professors were so invested and helpful in driving my career forward,” Robinson said. “The clinic built my skills, and the professors made the connections — it made a difference.”