Inspections will focus on safety at "fixed sites"


Issue Date: March 6, 2013
By Bob Johnson

Fixed sites on agricultural properties, such as greenhouses and packing sheds, will be a key focus for health and safety inspections during the next year, say state regulators, who add that the successful emphasis on reducing heat-related injury and illness will be continued and expanded to include these agricultural facilities.

"We will be looking at fixed sites: greenhouses, nurseries, packing sheds, dairies and other fixed sites. Our emphasis on fixed sites will be new," said Ellen Widess, chief of the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety, during the annual AgSafe Conference in Monterey last week.

While the increased scrutiny of fixed agricultural sites may begin with heat-related issues, the inspections figure to be far ranging.

"Those inspections are going to be wall to wall. I know it will start with heat, but they're going to look at everything," cautioned Bryan Little, Farm Employers Labor Service chief operating officer and labor affairs director for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Last year, Cal-OSHA and the farming community emphasized heat-related illness, with considerable success.

"I'm grateful that in the hottest summer ever, we had no heat-related deaths in agriculture," Widess said, adding that state regulators investigated around 45 heat-related illnesses, with about 15 of those in agriculture.

"We spent a huge amount of time on heat illness prevention; it was a priority. I applaud all of you for the effort in providing heat protection, water and training," Widess said. "We are going to continue our special emphasis programs in heat and confined space. In heat, our focus will be agriculture, landscaping and construction."

Little said agricultural organizations have been "very proactive" in training farmers, supervisors and employees during the last five years.

"We've done training every spring, and we'll continue to do that. We've trained literally thousands of people over the years, and I think farmworkers have benefited from that," he said.

California Labor Commissioner Julie Su said her agency's enforcement activity will be extended this year to include the relatively new requirement that labor contractors include the name of the grower on check stubs.

"We've spent a year educating people that the entity who contracted you has to be on the check stub. Now we are going to start enforcing the requirement," Su said.

There may still be some ambiguity, however, regarding this new requirement in situations where a check is for work done on numerous farms.

Su said her office has worked to streamline the process for labor contractor licensing and license verification.

"It used to take 120 days or more to process applications in the past. We cut that down now to where it will take two weeks for your application to be processed. Growers can already go to our website, click one link and know that you are licensed," Su told labor contractors attending the conference.

Work is under way to improve the process further, she said, with an entirely online licensing process, which would allow contractors to submit fingerprints, proof of bond and other required documents via the Internet.

Both Su and Widess said their agencies will not hesitate to punish serious violators of labor, health or safety rules.

Widess made it clear that, in the most serious cases, she is prepared to pursue criminal prosecution.

"When there has been a fatality, serious injury or just egregious facts, we are working very closely with district attorneys across the state who are quite interested in criminal prosecution," Widess said.

She said she wants to ensure an environment in which it is more profitable to invest in worker health and safety than to cut corners.

"I want to reinforce the point of the commitment of this administration to leveling the playing field, to making it possible for employers to prosper by investing in employee safety," Widess said.

(Bob Johnson is a reporter in Monterey. He may be contacted at bjohn11135@aol.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.