Cal/OSHA Feeling the Heat as Death Toll Rises

With the state's outdoor worker death toll climbing, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) says it is ratcheting up its efforts to make sure employers are aware of their obligations to protect their outdoor workers.

Cal/OSHA believes there have been 10 possible heat-related fatalities in the state this year, despite the fact that the state last week became the first in the nation to adopt permanent heat illness prevention regulations for outdoor workers.

"We have an aggressive outreach effort underway to educate employers and employees, and we also have shifted our random inspections more toward outdoor places of employment," Cal/OSHA spokesperson Dean Fryer told Occupationalhazards.com.

The agency also is widening its jurisdiction by investigating any worker deaths that it suspects are heat-related, Fryer added. For example, local authorities normally would handle the investigation of an outdoor worker who dies of a heart attack, but now Cal/OSHA might handle such a case because a heart attack could be triggered by heat stress.

"We are investigating it as if it is a heat-related fatality until we can get clarification from the coroner's office," Fryer said.

California's heat illness regulations which were adopted on an emergency basis in August 2005 before being finalized last week require employers to provide outdoor workers with shade and water. The regulations also require employers to implement a written heat illness prevention training program.

Penalties for violating the regulations can range from a fine of several hundred dollars for not having a written training program in place to a fine of $25,000 for failing to provide water or shade to workers. Fryer noted Cal/OSHA has yet to issue any big-ticket fines, but that could change.

"We have several fatalities under investigation right now. As those draw to a close and as we move forward in the coming weeks to do more investigations, we're going to see how well employers are complying," Fryer said.

Union Worries Cal/OSHA Lacks the Manpower

Assertions that Cal/OSHA plans to flex its enforcement muscles worry Matt Austin, staff consultant for the California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS), which represents Cal/OSHA's safety and health inspectors.

CAPS recently pushed state lawmakers to add enough money to the budget for Cal/OSHA to hire 100 additional workplace inspectors, which the union said would bring Cal/OSHA's inspector-to-worker ratio up to federal OSHA levels. The union, in a March 13 article ("Cal/OSHA Inspectors Want More Money for New Hires") bemoaned the fact that Cal/OSHA has about 170 inspectors to protect the safety and health of 17.7 million workers in more than 1 million California workplaces.

"If they're saying they're going to ramp up enforcement efforts on outdoor workplaces, I don't know how they're going to do it without harming their efforts to protect non-outdoor workers," Austin told Occupationalhazards.com yesterday.

Much to the chagrin of CAPS, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently jettisoned a line item in the state budget that would have added 15 1/2 inspectors to Cal/OSHA's enforcement ranks.

Schwarzenegger, in his veto message, pointed to a study conducted by the state Legislative Analyst's Office that "demonstrates that the levels of workplace injuries and fatalities in California are well below the national average."

Schwarzenegger also noted "Cal/OSHA has a number of inspector positions that are vacant and have been historically difficult to fill."

Even so, Austin believes ramping up enforcement efforts in one workplace sector will be something like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"If they suddenly send a bunch of inspectors out to agricultural fields to try and catch [violators], of necessity there won't be some [inspectors] in some other area," Austin said.

Stricter Penalties Needed?

Marc Grossman, principal spokesperson for the Keene, Calif.-based United Farm Workers Union, called the state's heat illness regulations "a breakthrough" in worker safety measures. But he believes adequacy of enforcement of the new regulations is "the big question."

Grossman also hinted stiffer penalties might be needed if Cal/OSHA's investigations reveal recent outdoor worker fatalities resulted from violating the regulations.

"I'm not prepared to say what they would be right now," Grossman said. "They could range from felony prosecution to civil cause of action for wrongful death. I think we may need to take a look at that."

Cal/OSHA, which now believes heat illness was responsible for 13 work-related deaths in the state in 2005, has been asserting its enforcement authority since the regulations were put in place last August, according to Fryer. The agency issued citations in 17 investigations of heat-related illnesses or fatalities in 2005, resulting in nearly $258,000 in penalties, Fryer said.

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