California’s heat illness prevention standard mandates shade, water and breaks for outdoor workers, with the specific requirements increasing with the temperature. Since its passage in 2005, the regulation has helped keep farm workers safe, says Marc Schenker of the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at U.C. Davis.

“We can still do better,” he said, in a webinar presenting findings from the California Heat Illness Prevention Study he conducted with colleagues.

They found that when workers don’t have adequate time to acclimate to hot weather they are at increased risk for heat related illness. He also says the training and educational materials that explain to workers the importance of taking breaks and drinking water, as well as their right to these things, could be improved by using more videos and graphics for people with low-literacy, even in their native language.

“This is 100% preventable,” he said. “We shouldn’t have any deaths from heat illness. It’s a tragedy when one occurs, let alone many.”

Leydy Rangel, a spokesperson for the United Farm Worker Foundation, says her group works hard to inform workers about the heat prevention requirements.

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“Communicating to them through Spanish language radio stations, yes,” she said, “but also Facebook is such a real tool for communicating with them.” Outreach occurs in indigenous languages, too, when possible. She said since 2015, there has been an anonymous system for workers to file complaints.

“The evidence does indicate that Cal OSHA over the years has become more responsive to our complaints,” Rangel said. “The law in the books really is becoming the law in the field.”

“Generally speaking, people do a pretty good job complying with the requirements to provide shade and water,” said Bryan Little, employment policy director with the California Farm Bureau. “There should be no effect on workers earnings to take breaks,” he adds, because the law requires employers to compensate piece-rate workers for the time they spend in heat-related breaks.

“I would be skeptical if all employers are doing that,” Rangel said. “Thinking of it from a worker perspective, you know that you could finish loading those three trucks in like 10 hours but why would you take 10 hours when you could work through your break and get it done in 8 hours and a half?”

Outreach aims to quell some of that inclination so workers take advantage of the prevention requirements.

Little says when farms are cited for a violation, most often it’s for inability to provide their written plans, not for a lack of adequate water or shade.

In October, farm-state senators and representatives introduced a bill to establish a federal heat illness prevention regulation.

Iris Figueroa, a senior staff attorney with Farmworker Justice, says California’s rules may serve as a model. Washington and Minnesota also have state regulations, though Minnesota’s is only for indoor workers.

Little says heat stress illness is considered a generally recognized hazard that employers are expected to protect their workers from. Still, he anticipates the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration will likely develop a specific federal regulation. 

“I’d be surprised if that didn’t happen,” Little said.

“The science is there, and the data that is needed for OSHA to move forward and put together a standard,” Figueroa said. “California is often sort of ahead of where the federal law is at, and that’s good. But there’s a lot of farmworkers that don’t work in California and they deserve protection as well.”

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