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As temperatures rise, chefs find they can’t stand the heat anymore

Marquea Braxton flips steaks on the grill at Woodholme Country Club in Pikesville, Md., where temperatures in the kitchen can exceed 100 degrees. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

Not counting his long hiatus during the pandemic, Arcie Walker has been cooking rib-eye and T-bone steaks at the Hoffbrau steakhouse in Austin for 40-some years. His flat top grill is set to 450 degrees, and owner Mary Gail Hamby Ray swears that the temperature in that corner of her tiny restaurant isn’t much lower given that the AC system, even on its good days, is no match against the Texas heat.

See where climate change made heat worse in America

But Walker is no hothouse flower. He has watched over the grill virtually without incident, even in those punishing years before Hamby Ray installed air conditioning in 2002. The cook can recall just one time, years ago, when he suffered something close to heat exhaustion. He had to sit in his car and blast the AC.

But Walker will turn 72 in September, and the heat affects him differently now. After an eight-hour shift, he feels depleted. “My body can’t handle it like it used to,” he says.

Which helps explain why Hamby Ray went with the nuclear option at the end of May. She decided to close the Hoffbrau for the summer. Between the rising temperatures outside, the difficulty of cooling the air inside the historic building and the age of her small staff, all of whom qualify for AARP cards, the owner couldn’t justify subjecting either employee or customer to the conditions inside the Hoffbrau.

“The last two weekends we were there in May, it was already getting so hot that I tried to keep a real close eye on him,” Hamby Ray says about her veteran cook. “I don’t want to look over there and find him passed out on the floor.”

Extreme heat, driven by climate change, has affected large parts of the United States this summer, leading to more droughts, wildfires, floods and triple-digit temperatures, all of which threaten the environment and the economy. But workers, particularly those who work outdoors or in high-heat environments inside, have seen their risks rise along with the mercury.

The seven hottest years on record, according to scientists, have occurred in the last seven years, and the number of annual heat waves has tripled since the 1960s. One recent study associated extreme heat with a higher overall death rate among adult Americans.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 344 workers died because of environmental heat exposure from 2011 to 2019, 57 of them between the ages of 55 to 64. During that same period, more than 30,000 workers became sick or were injured from heat exposure.

But the statistics don’t tell the full story, say safety experts. The numbers are based on employer surveys, and as Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate for the nonprofit Public Citizen, writes in her recent report, “This data is notoriously unreliable because it relies on self-reporting, and less than half of employers even maintain the required records.” Plus, advocates say, some workers don’t report heat-related illnesses because of potential retaliation.

Whatever the actual number of fatalities related to environmental heat, they are preventable with proper monitoring and safety practices, say medical experts and advocates. Yet only a handful of states have heat stress standards for workers, including California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Minnesota, and only two cover indoor workers. The federal government has never adopted heat standards, despite recommendations to do so stretching back to the 1970s. Last year, however, the Biden administration laid the groundwork to begin the process for writing rules for both indoor and outdoor workers.

As part of the rulemaking process, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has received hundreds of comments, whether from the general public or from those who would be affected by the new rules. These comments hint at both the need for standards — and the messiness of trying to create them in a country with a wide variety of climates, buildings and businesses that say they can handle the problem without government intervention.

Historically, heat stress standards have focused on outdoor workers, but as states and OSHA consider implementing new rules, or updating current ones, they’re including people who work indoors in high-heat spaces, such as the chefs, line cooks, dishwashers and others who toil in restaurant kitchens. This widening of the safety net, advocates say, recognizes not only the dangers inherent in indoor environments as temperatures rise, but also a basic fact: Outdoor and indoor workforces may be composed largely of Latino/Hispanic or Black workers who often feel as if they can’t speak up about their conditions.

According to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, Latino/Hispanic and Black workers combined make up more than 50 percent of both construction laborers and cooks.

Statistics for heat-related illnesses in the hospitality industry are hard to come by, largely because most restaurants don’t report these cases, says Teófilo Reyes, chief program officer for Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, a restaurant worker advocacy group. Since 2005, however, ROC United has been conducting surveys of 500-plus restaurant workers in cities across the country, and each survey includes workers who say their kitchens are “unsafely hot.” The percentages vary widely depending on location: 18 percent in Maine in a 2010 survey; 40 percent in Los Angeles in 2011; and 45 percent in New York City in 2005.

ROC United has also submitted more than 100 comments to OSHA as part of the agency’s information gathering. In many instances, these workers cite the same problems mentioned in comments already submitted to OSHA from restaurant employees: Kitchens with faulty AC units. Work spaces where the temperatures soar above 100 degrees. Cooks who feel nauseous or dizzy. Owners and managers who couldn’t care less.

“I have seen kitchens get to 120 degrees with no respite.” wrote Ruth Rapp in her comment to the agency. “Have you ever gone to a restaurant with an open kitchen for dinner? Maybe you’ve even sat at the coveted Chef’s table, which is typically a front-row seat to the show. While you are sitting drinking your wine jovial and happy to be dining at such a great place, the cook can’t even urinate because he is so dehydrated from the heat and the conditions.”

In collecting comments, Reyes with ROC United was struck by a trend: Restaurant workers who started smoking as a way to create their own breaks or escape the heat of a hellish kitchen.

“One of the funniest things in the industry is you don’t get breaks, but if you smoke, you’re allowed to break to go outside and smoke,” Reyes says. “And I think that’s a reason why a lot of restaurant workers smoke.”

The line between indoors and outdoors can be a porous one for restaurant workers, and not just at barbecue joints where pit crews may drape towels soaked in ice water around their necks to keep cool as they work next to 1,000-gallon outdoor smokers. Consider executive chef Richard Beckel’s 14-member team at the Woodholme Country Club in Pikesville, Md., near Baltimore.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Beckel and his crew had to cook and serve a multi-hour buffet on the club’s pool deck, a four-inch slab of cement that retains a lot of heat. The cooks were under tents with chafing dishes, grills and other cooking equipment. At one point, someone grabbed an infrared thermometer, a device often used to measure the heat inside an oven, and pointed it toward the cement. It registered 140 degrees.

Beckel was prepared for this. He knew he couldn’t put fans under the tents. They would blow out the flames under his chafing dishes. Instead, he packed a large cooler with water and Gatorade and encouraged his team to hydrate regularly. More important, he also understood the rhythms of the country club, when to expect a surge or a lull at the buffet. The latter would give his cooks time to recover, perhaps walk to the kitchen on the other side of the campus. In summer, the Woodholme kitchen itself may not provide much comfort, given that temperatures there can surpass 100 degrees, too, but it does offer some benefits.

“We had people standing in the freezer” during breaks, Beckel says. The chef himself pounded down more than two gallons of water and Gatorade during that Memorial Day cookout. By the end of the shift, he was wiped out — and still dehydrated. “There comes a point when no matter how much water you drink, you’re not retaining it,” Beckel says. “You’re just sweating it out as fast as you can get it in you.”

If you talk to doctors who specialize in sports medicine, they’ll tell you that there are parallels between million-dollar athletes and minimum-wage workers in the kitchen: Both are pushing their bodies under extreme heat. The difference is that professional athletes have doctors and specialists watching over them, and student-athletes have countless rules in place to protect them from heat-related illnesses. These rules may limit the amount of practice time during hot days, mandate breaks or require that athletes acclimate to the heat before undertaking strenuous exercise.

“I have seen studies that demonstrate that errors for indoor workers start going up 1 percent at every degree above 77 degrees, and that once you get higher than 92 degrees, you start losing your productivity,” said Chad Asplund, a sports medicine physician and the executive director for the U.S. Council for Athletes’ Health.

Unlike athletes, kitchen workers have very few heat standards to protect them, aside from those few states that have adopted rules. OSHA is on the path toward creating standards, but it could take years and the process could be shelved by a new administration. The standards will likely face pushback from industry, too, which may balk at the costs associated with regulations, including hiring more staff to allow for breaks, building designated cool-down rooms or even buying equipment to measure the heat and humidity inside kitchens.

But Fulcher, the worker safety advocate for Public Citizen, says restaurant owners who focus only on the costs don’t see the big picture.

“This is not the money-loser that people think it is,” Fulcher says. “Right now, workplaces are losing money because of the heat stress that they’re putting their workers through. There’s a whole host of things that are happening there: illness and injury, absenteeism, turnover, worker’s comp and on and on and on. That’s costing them money.”