Ag Rules: Heading Off the Heat

Water cooler imprinted with heat safety tips. Photo: Sasha Khokha

Water cooler imprinted with heat safety tips. Photo: Sasha Khokha

It was like a pageant of farmers in plaid shirts; nearly a dozen speakers  in a Fresno County meeting hall, surrounded by vineyards. Farm leaders offered glowing praise of Cal OSHA’s new guidelines and training seminars that will help them comply with the state’s first-in-the nation heat safety rules–passed three years ago.

The love-fest with Cal-OSHA sets a new tone for agriculture. Growers have traditionally been at odds with the agency tasked with protecting the state’s workers. Farmers have challenged fines and complained about inspections. But despite the regulations,  six workers died last summer, including a pregnant teenage farmworker (some of the victims worked in construction or other outdoor jobs).

Part of the problem was that neither Cal-OSHA inspectors nor farmers had a very clear understanding of how to implement the rules. Is it enough to have an umbrella folded up in the back of a pickup in case it got hot? How hot? How much shade and water is enough?

Today, Cal-OSHA chief Len Welsh made it clear: when it’s 85 degrees or hotter, shade tents or umbrellas have to go up. And that shade should be no more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk away, according to the rules, which also require enough shade so that one-in-four employees are protected from the sun at any given time.

That’s still worrisome for leaders of  the United Farmworkers Union, who were conspicuously absent from the press conference. There are times, they say, when the temperature soars well above 100 or spikes suddenly and everybody should get a break. The UFW says the new guidelines are too vague, and Cal-OSHA’s publicity campaign to educate farmers isn’t enough. Union leaders say the state should impose more fines and criminal penalties when workers die in the heat.