Heatstroke in the Fields

For a lot of us, summer means sitting in air-conditioned offices and complaining to our co-workers about how hot it is outside. For farmworkers, summers mean hours of toil under a hot sun, in conditions that can be fatal. Working in the heat doesn’t have to mean death, as long as workers can rest in the shade periodically and drink water.

But, as Kevin O’Leary points out in Time magazine, employers don’t always provide these basic necessities. California, whose 650,000 farmworkers are responsible for 44% of our country’s produce, implemented a standard in 2005 that requires farms and contractors to provide shade and water. Although growers point to improvements – including trainings and new water containers – worker advocates say many employers flout the law with little fear of consequences. The ACLU and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olsen are now suing Cal-OSHA (the state’s occupational safety and health administration) on behalf of the United Farm Workers and five workers who were sickened or relatives of workers who died from heatstroke. O’Leary details their complaint:

The complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court provides graphic details. Audon Felix Garcia, 41, became sick July 2008 after loading grape boxes into a truck in 112-degree heat from morning to early afternoon in Kern County. He had 15 years of experience in the fields and, according to the complaint, his “core body temperature was 108 degrees Fahrenheit at the time of his death.” Maria de Jesus Bautista had worked in the fields all her life and had never been sick from the heat, but in July 2008 while picking grapes in Riverside County in 110 degrees she complained to her sister of a “headache, nausea and cold sweats.” According to the lawsuit, “She continued to work the rest of the day because her employer did not provide any shade and she felt pressured to keep pace with her co-workers. Over the next two weeks, her headache persisted, she became disoriented and was unable to recognize family members, and she was hospitalized on three separate occasions.” She died on Aug. 2 last year.

…. The lawsuit claims the enforcement agency, the State’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety (Cal-OSHA) is woefully understaffed (only 198 inspectors for 17 million state workers including the 650,000 farm workers) and that since California enacted its Heat Illness Prevention regulation, “the number of farm-worker heat-related deaths has increased.”

The article goes on to explain that the growers who own large farms tend to hire contractors, who in turn employ workers. Labor contractors are the ones potentially liable when workers are hurt on the job, but one of the workers’ attorneys says that these contractors rarely have the fixed assets that growers do, so penalties should also be assessed on growers.

I’ll give the last word to O’Leary (read his full article here) about how Cal-OSHA has been responding:

Reacting to the lawsuit, Cal-OSHA filed a proposal with the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board to amend the regulation to require that shade be present at all times. Agency official John C. Duncan said the proposed revision “will make it clear that employees have the right to take a rest in the shade whenever they feel the need to do so to prevent overheating.” In the past two months, however, the board has twice failed to adopt emergency proposals to strengthen the heat regulation. After the second rejection, Schwarzenegger issued a statement saying that the board “has failed in their mission to ensure the health and safety of California’s outdoor workers.”

Comments

  1. #1 Digital Scale
    August 21, 2009

    Recently I read a 17 yr old pregnant illegal immigrant worker in California that died while working the fields. How do you make laws for people who are employing illegal immigrants, and expect them to be followed? Doubtful….

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