California: Worker Deaths Prompt Emergency Heat Stress Rule Proposal

The deaths of four California farm workers caused by intense summer heat have spurred Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to instruct the state's workplace safety and health agency to create emergency heat stress regulations.

In an Aug. 2 press conference, Schwarzenegger, flanked by state lawmakers, union representatives, agricultural leaders and family members of fallen farm workers, said he has instructed Cal/OSHA to submit emergency heat stress regulations to the state's Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board. The board is expected to meet Aug. 12 to consider the proposed regulations.

The regulations, which would go into effect immediately if adopted by the board, would require all employers to allow outdoor workers to rest in a shaded area if they are suffering from heat illness or are feeling the effects of the heat. The rules also would mandate that employers and workers learn to recognize, prevent and treat heat stress.

"This summer, four workers in our state have suffered extreme heat stress and died," Schwarzenegger said. "This is a tragedy and we all share the grief of the families. We need to do everything it takes to prevent this from happening again."

A bill that would establish permanent workplace heat stress regulations, sponsored by the Keene, Calif.-based United Farm Workers union and Assemblymember Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park, passed in the state's General Assembly earlier this year and is being considered by the Senate. But with the recent spate of heat-related deaths the four workers died during a 3-week period in July the union pushed for rules that could be implemented immediately, according to United Farm Workers spokesperson Marc Grossman.

"We realized that even if the bill would become law, it wouldn't take effect until the first of next year," Grossman said. "So the current summer harvest season, when workers are dying in unprecedented numbers, would pass without any protection."

While acknowledging that the United Farm Workers is "at war" with Schwarzenegger on a number of other issues, Grossman credited Schwarzenegger for his support of the proposed permanent heat stress legislation which had been stalled since 1990 and for expediting the proposed emergency regulations.

"We disagree with him on other things, but on this he did the right thing," Grossman said.

"Every Last Drop of Sweat"

California growers employ about 400,000 workers, the union estimates. Most of those farm workers are immigrants, and many of them are undocumented aliens, according to Grossman.

Farm workers in California often are subject to oppressive working conditions in triple-digit heat, Grossman said, and the union attributes some of the heat-related deaths to "speed-ups," in which workers are subjected to "a relentless push to work hard."

"When they're working by the hour often at minimum wage [employers] want to get every last drop of sweat out of them, every last drop of work," Grossman said.

Because of so-called speed-ups or rigorous production quotas, many workers are afraid to take breaks for fear of reprisal, Grossman said, adding that most farm workers receive "no benefits whatsoever, no paid vacations and no right to file a grievance."

For more on Cal/OSHA's proposed emergency heat stress rules, read http://www.occupationalhazards.com/articles/13815 "Cal/OSHA Submits Heat Stress Regulations to State."

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