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Farmworkers Sue for Protection from Heat Stroke

Created: 07 August, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023
5 min read

 Several Central Valley farm-workers have filed a lawsuit against the state of California and its Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Cal/OSHA) for allegedly failing to adequately protect farm-workers from heat illness.

 As a result, they said, laborers are afraid to report violations, continue falling ill and more than 11 have died in the past few years, including six last year alone.

 “What we’re trying to do is to radically change the system,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, an attorney with American Civil Liberties Union. “We are not just trying to send a message.”

 ACLU affiliates in Los Ángeles are representing five farmworkers from the Central Valley area and the United Farm Workers.

 John Duncan, deputy director of communications for the state Department of Industrial Relations, called the lawsuit “misguided,” and said California has the strongest standards on heat illness prevention.

 Duncan responded to the lawsuit in a written statement: “Our increased enforcement and outreach efforts demonstrate the commitment we have to ensuring the safety and health of California workers. We are also working with industry, community, and labor groups to educate employers and the public to understand how to comply with the nation’s first regulations to protect workers from heat-related illnesses and deaths.”

 According to Cal/OSHA, the agency has conducted 1,702 such inspections, which resulted in 472 violations and a total of $415,398 in penalties.

 But Lhamon said current standards and efforts by the state are not enough.

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 According to the civil lawsuit filed July 30, California fails to improve the existing heat prevention regulations, despite acknowledging that violations on heat safety continue increasing. It said that Cal/OSHA found more than two times the violations in the first two weeks of 2009, compared to all of 2008.

 Advocates say farm laborers continue feeling pressured to work without breaks despite intense heat, because they fear losing their jobs if they complain.

 Under current law employees have the right to take a rest break when they are experiencing symptoms of heat illness, and that is too late many times, according to the lawsuit.

 Advocates say the state is not appropriating enough resources into heat illness prevention, noting that California only conducted 750 inspections last year in a state with about 35,000 farms.

 Lhamon said the state is not taking farmworker safety seriously, adding that enforcement is insufficiently only placed on the understaffed Cal/OSHA department.

 California was the first state to establish heat illness prevention in 2005, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into effect that employers must provide enough fresh water, access to shade, at least five minutes of rest, written procedures and heat illness prevention training to employees and supervisors.

 Still, since the enactment of those rules, about 11 farmworkers have died from heat illness after laboring for hours in the sun.

 Margarita Álvarez Bautista, who is one of the lawsuit plaintiffs, said the death of her 63-year-old mother could have been prevented by the supervising contractor.

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 “I say they have to provide training,” said Bautista, a 44-year-old Coachella resident. “This should not happen.”

 María De Jesús Álvarez Bautista was picking grapes in a Coachella vineyard in 2008, when she began to feel sick. She kept working, because she felt pressured, said her daughter.

 Days after her condition persisted, she went to the hospital where doctors said she was dehydrated. The coroner declared María’s death was due to meningitis, but her daughter believes that her condition worsened because her employer pressured her to continue working.

 In San Joaquín County, María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez, a 17-year-old pregnant worker from Lodi, died in May 2008 from a heat stroke she suffered in a Farmington vineyard. The coroner declared it an occupational death. The contractor was fined more than $200,000 by the state and stripped of her license. Civil and criminal charges were filed this year against the contractor by the county.

 Since then, Cal/OSHA has stepped up its outreach effort. The state department has conducted 934 heat illness prevention outreach activities this year, including seminars, presentations, training sessions, and media interviews. Training was extended to more than 4,000 farm labor contractors, their crew leaders and the growers who hire them.

 But even as more attention was placed on farmworker conditions, laborers say many employers are still ignoring labor laws.

 Julio Hernández, 54, has worked in agriculture for more than 20 years. Recently, while picking grapes at Guimarra Vineyard in Bakersfield, he said the supervisor told all workers that if they stopped for breaks during work time, they would be sent home.

 He said workers are required by employers to pick at least three boxes per hour. There are restrooms and drinking water onsite, but if the workers are seen taking breaks they are sent home, Hernández said.

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 “Supposedly they have it there as decorations,” he said. “They’ve been doing everything a lot harder every year.”

 Lhamon said, “Farmworkers are literally dying because of the state’s broken system, which is designed in a way that ensures underenforcement of the law.”

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