Farmers take precautions to protect workers from heat
Employees at Lee Richter's farm in Knights Landing sit in shaded comfort, thanks to a portable structure that Richter developed.
As the summer harvest season progresses, farmers and farm labor contractors must remain vigilant and protect outdoor workers from heat illness by implementing the Cal/OSHA heat illness prevention standard.
Under California law, employers of outdoor employees are required to have a written heat illness prevention program, train all employees and supervisors about the dangers of heat illness, and provide access to adequate shade and plenty of fresh, pure and cool water for each employee.
California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little said a failure to fully comply with this regulation could result in the loss of life and hefty fines.
"CFBF has worked closely with Cal/OSHA and other major farm groups in California to organize heat stress training for farm labor contractors. Very often, farm labor contractors are the most familiar with workers and their condition," Little said. "We believe it's in a farmer's interest to ensure that a contractor he's working with has taken this training. You can do this by asking the contractor to produce the certificate he received when he took the training."
Little continued, "CFBF is continuing to work with Cal/OSHA and other farm groups, and we'll be continuing to provide training to farm labor contractors throughout the summer."
Many farmers and farm labor contractors have gone the extra mile to protect their employees and ensure that they understand and put into practice the heat illness prevention standard.
Ventura County farmer Henry Vega, who is also a farm labor contractor, has spent $7,000 for a water purification system for his employees, to ensure that they drink plenty of water.
"I found that workers were going to vending machines for bottled water because in Santa Paula, the water is highly calcified and is not the best drinking water. So we invested in the purification system," Vega said.
Vega reminds that when growers are hiring a farm labor contracting company, they should ensure that the company has a valid farm labor contractor license and does not have any outstanding OSHA or other fines.
"Unfortunately there are a lot of fly-by-night labor contractors and as a result of the bad ones, contractors who are doing right by their workers are unfortunately painted with the same broad stroke," Vega added.
Farmers have also invested in additional heat illness prevention tools. Knights Landing farmer Lee Richter spent more than $5,000 developing a portable shade for his employees. From previous experience with umbrellas and canopies breaking and blowing away, he knew that this year, his employees needed something more substantial to protect them from the summer heat.
"I attended a heat illness prevention meeting where I saw a photo of a different type of shade. That one was on wheels, but one difference is mine is on a trailer. When the wind was blowing this spring at 40 mph we noticed that the umbrellas could not withstand the wind," Richter said.
Knights Landing farmer Lee Richter erects a portable shade structure that he built for his employees.
The shade, called the butterfly by his employees, is retractable and moves as the workers do. The canvas shade can be easily erected by the use of two hydraulic arms that extend the metal frame and a pulley system that rolls the shade over the top of the frame. Underneath the shade as part of the trailer, there is a table and benches to accommodate about 10 employees, who find it a great place to cool off, eat lunch and take breaks.
Lupe Ruiz of Knights Landing, who is working in Richter's tomato fields, said she and her co-workers love the butterfly shade.
"We take our breaks under it and it is nice coming over here in the shade. It is good," she said. "We are lucky that we have this man because he made it."
The butterfly shade can withstand strong winds and has plenty of additional safety features. Richter added supports to the metal frame to ensure that it would remain sturdy and during times of high winds, he adds rubber bungee cords that further secure the shade to the frame. The trailer also has a place for water coolers and dispensable paper cups for plenty of water. As another feature, Richter reserved a section of the trailer to post safety information posters that the workers can refer to.
The butterfly shade is such a hit, the crew recently celebrated a birthday there.
"They held a birthday party for one of the ladies and they tied balloons all around the shade and put up streamers for the birthday party. They just love it," Richter said.
In the southern San Joaquin Valley, where summer temperatures often exceed 105 degrees, farmers like Pete Aiello have made one common-sense change to protect workers from heat illness and still get crops harvested.
"For our production in Bakersfield we've seen temperatures get to 110 to 115 degrees at least a few days every year. We figured out that if we started in the evening and had the crew work until 2 or 3 in the morning, it would allow them to work in conditions a little less harsh than the daytime would present," said Aiello, who is general manager of Uesugi Farms Inc. and farms in Kern, Merced, San Benito and Santa Clara counties. "It has been working great."
Such precautions, and vigilance in following the heat illness prevention standard, are crucial.
In late July, Cal/OSHA charged a farm labor contractor with numerous violations several weeks after a 17-year-old employee collapsed and later died after working in a San Joaquin County vineyard. Last week, a second farm labor contractor was ordered to pay large fines for violating the state's heat illness prevention laws.
Employers may be cited when evidence shows they know what regulations require, have been cited for the same violations in the past, intend to engage in conduct they know is in violation of the law and are aware that a workplace hazard exists.
California Farm Bureau Associate Counsel Carl Borden noted that farmers must understand that they are not automatically relieved of responsibility by hiring a farm labor contractor.
"Generally the farmer hiring the farm labor contractor isn't liable for an injury incurred by the contractor's employee, but if the farmer negligently and affirmatively contributed to the injury's cause, then the farmer is liable to the employee or the employee's survivors," Borden said. "He's also liable if he knew about a dangerous condition on his land that's not readily apparent to a visitor and failed to disclose it to the farm labor contractor, whose employee is then injured by it."
Kimberly Naffziger, executive director of AgSafe, a coalition dedicated to the prevention of injuries, illnesses and fatalities among those working in agriculture, said protecting workers from heat illness must be a shared goal among growers, farm labor contractors and workers.
"It has to be all of us together," she said. "It is important not only to understand the laws and regulations, but also that farm labor contractors are taking this information back and implementing a program, and that supervisors are trained and that workers also understand the signs and symptoms of heat illness."
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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