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Heat Illness

Posted on Dec 3, 2009
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Farm WorkerWorkers in California continue to suffer heat illness and heat-related fatalities despite the fact that in 2005, California became the first state in the nation to adopt a comprehensive heat illness prevention standard [“the standard”] for outdoor workplaces.

This standard, which became permanent in July 2006, requires employers to train employees on heat illness prevention, and to provide recovery breaks, accessible drinking water, and shade. The employer is also required to develop and implement procedures for complying with the standard. Click here for the Heat Illness Prevention Standard.

The standard has fallen short of its intent with severe and even deadly consequences for farmworkers and others who labor outdoors in the California heat. Since the implementation of the standard, Worksafe has worked with unions, legal aid programs, occupational health physicians, and other worker advocates to improve the standard, expand education on heat illness and workers’ rights, and to increase enforcement of the standard.

According to the United Farm Workers, 11 laborers have died of heat-related illness since 2005. One of the confirmed heat fatalities of 2008 was Maria Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant 17-year-old whose internal body temperature reached 108 degrees after working more than 9 hours in a Lodi vineyard. Maria did not have access to shade or water. Even after collapsing from the heat, she was made to rest in a hot van for hours, as ordered by her supervisor, before being revived with rubbing alcohol and taken to a nearby hospital.

In response to heat-related illnesses and deaths in the fields and calls for stepped up enforcement, Cal/OSHA expanded training for growers and outreach to workers in 2008 and again in 2009 and increased inspections at farms throughout California. Cal/OSHA also developed educational materials, adding these to their online resources. The inspections resulted in increased numbers of citations issued, and DOSH shutting down numerous farm labor contractors for non-compliance. DOSH’s enforcement efforts were limited as there are approximately 200 inspectors for all California worksites, including roughly 35,000 farms, and 300,000 to 500,000 farmworkers.

In June of 2009, DOSH proposed a weak emergency amendment to the standard. Worksafe and several allies fought to defeat the emergency regulation, which was rejected by the Standards Board on June 18, 2009. Worksafe then worked with DOSH to help draft a more protective emergency amendment. That regulation failed in July 2009 when the Standards Board deadlocked 3-3.

DOSH then decided to propose changes through standard rulemaking, rather than continuing to pursue emergency amendments, upon which the Standards Board did not look favorably. On October 15, 2009, the Standards Board held a hearing to consider these amendments. Dozens of witnesses, including Worksafe’s Lora Jo Foo and Michael Smith, testified in the matter. [Click here to read Worksafe’s report of this meeting].

After Standards Board members criticized DOSH’s failure to try to reach consensus on the amendments before proposing them, DOSH scheduled a heat stakeholder meeting in Oakland on November 16. Worksafe organized around this meeting, recruiting dozens of union members and leaders who were vocal participants in the meeting. These worker advocates made it clear that heat illness affects workers in many industries, contrary to claims by some Board members at the October 15 meeting that regulatory changes were needed only for agricultural workers. As of December 2009, we anticipate a modified proposal from DOSH in the near future.

In addition to this action on the regulatory front, there is a lawsuit pending regarding California’s failure to protect workers from heat illness. On July 30, 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a lawsuit against the State of California and the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board. The suit was filed on behalf of five farmworkers, and alleges that the state and Standards Board have violated workers’ rights by neither adequately enforcing existing law nor passing more protective laws.  DOSH reported at its November 2009 Advisory Committee meeting that the suit is on hold as the parties attempt to work out a settlement.

Link to DOSH Meetings on Heat Illness Prevention Programs and Regulations

Link to Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board 2009 Meeting Agendas and Minutes

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