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California steps up efforts to prevent heat-related deaths among farmworkers

The state has expanded training for growers and outreach to workers. But officials acknowledge that limited resources have made it nearly impossible to ensure all employers follow the law.

August 03, 2009|Anna Gorman

Jose Rosario Valencia started feeling nauseated just after 9 a.m. on July 17. His heart rate sped up and his knees buckled.

Valencia was scared. He'd heard of other farmworkers dying of heat stroke in the fields.

"I thought about my family and how they would suffer," said Valencia, 46, who moves irrigation pipes in the onion fields.

Even though California passed a groundbreaking law in 2005 to protect farmworkers from heat illness and death, there have been as many as 10 heat-related fatalities in the years since. Among the victims in 2008 were a pregnant teenager who died when her body temperature climbed to 108 degrees after working in a Lodi vineyard and a 37-year-old man who suffered heat stroke after loading table grapes near Bakersfield. The state has confirmed heat as the cause of six of the deaths and said it may have been a factor in the others.

Aiming to prevent any deaths this year, the state has expanded training for growers and outreach to workers, and stepped up inspections of farms throughout California. But officials say limited resources have made it nearly impossible to ensure that all employers follow the law. There are only 201 inspectors to monitor all work sites in California, including roughly 35,000 farms.

The law, the first of its kind in the nation, requires growers to supply enough water for all employees and to provide shade for breaks when employees feel sick. Companies are also required to conduct training on heat illness prevention and have an emergency plan in place for ill workers.

During sweeps earlier this year, inspectors with the state's Occupational Safety and Health Division found numerous growers not following the law; they conducted 568 inspections and found 108 violations. Cal-OSHA also temporarily shut down 10 farms for violating the heat standards and issued more than $45,000 in fines to those employers. At one farm in the Coachella Valley, inspectors found 15 workers sharing less than a gallon of water in 116-degree heat.

A lawsuit filed last week alleges that the state is failing to prevent heat-related illness and death among California's farmworkers. Attorneys said employers ignore the requirements because they know there is little chance of getting caught. Fines are issued, they said, but often reduced and infrequently collected. Even when the law is enforced, the lawyers said, it doesn't protect workers enough. For example, it doesn't specify how close the water and shade must be to the workers.

"Farmworkers are not safe," said Catherine Lhamon, assistant legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which filed the suit. "The men and women who bring food to our tables are continuing to risk their lives and suffer hospitalization this summer because their employers deny them the water and shade they so desperately need."

Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer countered that the state has done an effective job preventing heat illnesses and deaths. Fryer said inspectors can't be in every field, so the state partners with organizations to do training and safety monitoring. Inspectors are also trying to target the "bad employers."

"We believe that the outreach and education is starting to bear fruit," he said. "There is more compliance and fewer violations."

This year, Fryer said, 16% of the farms inspected weren't complying with the law, compared with 48% in 2007 and 35% in 2008.

United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said farmworkers keep toiling even when they feel ill, in part because many are paid by how much they pick.

"The laws on the books are not the laws in the fields," Rodriguez said.

Some workers say they are afraid to rest or drink water for fear of falling behind and being fired. "The supervisor tells us that there is water there, but if we drink that water and they see it and we fall behind, they will let us go," said Julio Hernandez, a longtime worker with Giumarra Cos.

Several workers have already gotten sick this year.

Valencia, working in the onion fields, said he didn't drink much water because it was about a mile away. There was no shade, he said, and supervisors warned workers not to talk to inspectors. "No one says anything for fear of being fired," Valencia said.

The day he felt ill, Valencia rested in an air-conditioned truck but didn't feel better. He asked a supervisor for help and ended up at Antelope Valley Hospital, where he said he spent four days being treated for dehydration and heat stroke.

Now, he is recovering in a trailer in Lancaster that he shares with his brother and his brother's family.

The need for water and shade is only expected to grow as the state enters the hottest months of the summer.

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