Health & Medicine

July 7, 2013

Central Valley farmworkers still vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, study finds

Several years after state politicians focused on reducing farmworker deaths, Central Valley laborers remain vulnerable to heat-related illness, according to a study by the UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety.

Several years after state politicians focused on reducing farmworker deaths, Central Valley laborers remain vulnerable to heat-related illness, according to a study by the UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety.

In the most recent instance, state officials are investigating whether a farmworker's death Tuesday in a watermelon field near Coalinga was related to last week's heat wave.

At the urging of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers, state officials enacted permanent farm guidelines that require access to shade and rest breaks after six California workers died in 2005.

But the United Farm Workers union says not all growers comply and that the state lacks sufficient enforcement. It also alleges in an ongoing lawsuit that the state underreports the number of deaths caused by heat.

The UC Davis study released late last year found that 91 percent of farmworkers interviewed from 2008 to 2010 received state-mandated training on heat-related illness. But workers still do not drink enough water and underestimate how much time it takes to acclimate to high temperatures.

"People die every year from working in this heat," said Marc Schenker, the director of the center and principal investigator of the study.

"As the heat goes up, the crops come in. There's often an acceleration of ripening when things get warmer," said Schenker, "so there might be a push to get things in from the field."

State officials said a 30-year-old farmworker who was employed at a watermelon field near Coalinga died on Tuesday afternoon. The temperature at his time of death was 105 degrees, and the coroner is still determining the cause.

The UC Davis study found that workers reported consuming 10.7 drinks per shift, well below the recommended level of 24 drinks per six-hour shift.

After the heat-related deaths of farmworkers in 2005, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration enacted emergency heat illness regulations in 2005 and permanent ones in 2006.

Hailed as the first and most stringent regulations in the country, they require all outdoor places of employment in California to provide training on heat-related illness, shade and at least one quart of water per employee per hour. They also require employers to encourage "the frequent drinking of water."

The current regulations do not mandate breaks – they only require employers to encourage employees to take them. However, the U.S. Army orders hourly breaks for troops working in extreme heat and humidity, and labor advocates have argued that Cal-OSHA should adopt a similar measure.

Bryan Little, director of labor affairs at the California Farm Bureau, said he sees farmers encouraging their employees to drink water. But, he added, "It's hard sometimes to get people to take a break. It's an ongoing process."

Labor advocates say current rules are not enough. Many workers earn wages based on how much they can harvest, and they have a financial incentive to not stop for water or shade.

Advocates also say that hourly workers don't feel comfortable asking for breaks, as many workers are undocumented. The breaks are "hardest to enforce in an agricultural setting – it's a vulnerable population," said Schenker.

"Part of what is going to be needed is changing the societal and cultural context for workers so they do feel comfortable taking a break," said Maria Marois, a co-author of the UC Davis report.

"People will say they don't want to use the bathroom, so they don't drink water," she said. "The Porta Potties on the side of the field are not a pleasant thing to go to."

Schenker urged public officials to include farmworkers in their concern during heat waves. "Most of the focus on heat stress is on what are recognized to be the most vulnerable groups – the elderly, the very young. That focus should include people who work in the heat," he said.

The state regulations came under fire in 2008 when Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, died after collapsing in a vineyard east of Stockton. She was two months pregnant at the time.

"These are not rare, exotic disorders. It's just shade and rest and water," Schenker said, noting that when Vasquez Jimenez died, the temperature reached a high of 95 degrees, nowhere near the high of 110 degree experienced last week. She simply did not receive adequate shade and water, he said.

Since 2008, Cal-OSHA has reported only one heat-related farmworker fatality. There were zero heat-related fatalities among farmworkers recorded by Cal-OHSA in 2009, 2010, and 2012. The total number of farmworker fatalities since the 2005 emergency regulations were enacted is 13.

However, a United Farm Workers lawsuit against Cal-OHSA claims that the actual number is much higher – nearly two dozen. In a formal complaint, UFW said Cal-OSHA "creates the appearance of increased compliance even as it fails to improve the quality of its enforcement activity."

The state agency said it could not respond due to ongoing litigation.

Cal-OSHA regulations have not changed since 2005, with the exception of an amendment in 2010 that added "temperature triggers."

Above 95 degrees, employers must, "to the extent practicable," observe employees for heat illness, ensure that employees are able to communicate with a supervisor at all times – either by voice or with a cellphone if reception is available, and remind employees to drink plenty of water.

Above 85 degrees, employers must provide shade enough to accommodate at least 25 percent of the employees on the shift. Employees must be allowed and are encouraged to take a five-minute break in the shaded area upon request.

Call The Bee's Ellen Le, (916) 321-1031. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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