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Heat wave worrisome for farm worker health

Farmworker Eduardo Amezcua stands next to a water cooler after picking nectarine at HMC Farms outside of Selma.
Farmworker Eduardo Amezcua stands next to a water cooler after picking nectarine at HMC Farms outside of Selma.
Lisa Morehouse/KQED

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It's been pretty hot this summer with temps hitting triple digits all over the state. Pretty bad even if you work in an air conditioned office, but what if your office was actually outdoors? 

State regulators are investigating the deaths of three farm workers to see if their employers violated heat illness prevention laws. The California Report's Lisa Morehouse has the story.*

Even as temperatures in the Central Valley reach near-record-breaking heights, as many as one in four farm employers do not comply with state heat illness prevention regulations, according to data from Cal OSHA, the state’s regulatory agency.

California became the first state, in 2006, to adopt heat illness regulations: employers must provide water and shade as well as allow breaks. They need to train workers and supervisors and have an emergency plan for every location.

In the Central Valley town of Selma, fruit-picker Eduardo Amezcua’s employer complies. Emptying his sack of nectarines, Amezcua poured himself a cup of water from a cooler.

“They tell us to drink every 15 minutes,” he said. “It’s hitting triple digits, so they tell us to work slow or where the shade’s at and drink water frequently.”

The temperature is set to reach 107 degrees, so the crew started at 5:30am in order to finish by 1pm.

Years ago, the workers would have continued to work longer hours.

“But then they got a little more stricter on having people out here, working while it’s too hot,” he said. “So they got more laws to take care of us.” 

Ranch manager Drew Kettleson said it makes business sense: workers aren’t very productive if it’s hot or sick. But it also makes moral sense.

“The humanity part comes first,” Kettleson said. “These guys do all the work and get us our product that we need to sell. Without these guys, where are we? We’re nowhere. So we do everything we can to take care of them.”

Many more employers now comply with heat illness regulations, but not all of them.

“[There are] employers who just refuse to do basic things like water and shade -- that’s enormously painful,” said the United Farm Workers’ Giev Kashkooli. “Both the Schwarzenegger and Brown administration have failed in that regard, and large numbers of employers are not complying.”

The UFW blames Cal OSHA, at least in part. The union has filed lawsuits against the agency, arguing the state’s 200 inspectors can’t adequately enforce protections for California’s estimated 600,000 farm workers, who are often undocumented and migratory.

The UFW also wants stricter regulations. One priority is making breaks mandatory, not just recommended.

Ellen Weidess, the chief of Cal OSHA, said the agency sends inspectors out to sites based on work cycles and weather patterns. It also responds to complaints and reports of fatalities.

After one man died in early July, Cal OSHA shut down all outdoor operations at his employer, Etchegaray Farms, citing multiple violations.

While Cal OSHA’s data show a decrease in fatalities since 2006, she knows there is still work to be done.

“We’re concerned where there are violations even if there are no deaths or illnesses because those kinds of violations could lead to illness and death, Weidess said.

Cal OSHA has mounted a major multilingual heat illness awareness campaign on billboards across the state. The agency also partners with growers, universities and labor advocates to train employers and workers.

One of those advocates is Lupe Quintero from California Rural Legal Assistance. She holds workshops to train workers about their rights. Participants role play scenarios such as confronting a crew boss about not having enough water.

Farmworker Ana Reyes says the workshop she attended one hot day in Imperial County taught her about her rights and where to file a complaint about inadequate heat protections, if necessary. 

When her employer provided training, it was rushed and hard to hear, she said. Nonetheless, she had to sign a paper saying she’d been educated about heat stress.

“I do have family members that have been victims of it,” Reyes said. “It wasn’t until recent years that proper shade became a requirement.”

Quintero, the workshop organizer, said everyone should try to imagine the same conditions in their own work lives.

“Just think about it: You’re working in an office, somebody tries to stop you from drinking water? Taking a break? I mean, you take those things for granted,” she said. “Well, why not for the farm worker?” 

Cal OSHA said it will take about six months to finish investigating this summer’s farmworker fatalities.

*Correction: The online version of this story originally stated that three farm workers had died from heat related illnesses. Those deaths are still being investigated. The headline has also been updated.