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Calif. sued over farm worker safety

July 30, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Workers' rights activists are suing the state for allegedly failing to protect farm workers.The American Civil Liberties Union claims failure to enforce safety regulations has led to deaths and illness. A number of farm workers have allegedly died of heat related illnesses since 2005, including 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez, 64-year-old Jose Hernandez, and 42-year-old Audon Garcia.

"The men and women who bring food to our tables are continuing to risk their lives and suffer hospitalization this summer because their employers deny them the water and shade they so desperately need," said Catherine Lhamon from the ACLU.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against Cal/OSHA claiming the state agency, that is supposed to protect workers, is failing to do its job. It is an issue that has drawn several protests.

Activists say there are only 187 inspectors to deal with 17 million workers, including the 650,000 farm workers.

"What the state is currently doing is not enough. It's made crystal clear by the fact that at least six farm workers died from the heat in 2008 and many, many more have become ill in 2009," said attorney Brad Phillips.

Julio Hernandez has worked the fields for 25 years. He says the conditions are sometimes unbearable.

Hernandez says his employer Giumarra Vineyards would place a water container hundreds of yards away. If he walked over and back it would take him so much time he wouldn't be able to meet his minimum quota and he could be fired.

The lawsuit alleges Giumarra often does not provide shade and there is not sufficient access to water.

A message left with the company in Los Angeles has not been returned.

Meanwhile, in a news release Cal/OSHA says it continues to conduct targeted enforcement efforts, especially during periods of high heat. This year, 10 employers in the agricultural industry were ordered by Cal/OSHA to stop operations.

"It hasn't been ignorance, but it's been neglect that has resulted in the deaths of farm workers," said Arturo Rodriguez from the United Farm Workers.

Cal/OSHA's Deputy Director of Communications Dean Fryer released the following statement regarding the ACLU/UFW lawsuit:

This lawsuit is misguided. California is the first state in the nation to implement a regulation to protect workers from the summer heat and we still have the strongest regulation of the states who have now instituted a heat illness prevention standard. Cal/OSHA has done an effective job of preventing heat illnesses and fatalities. In fact there has been a downward overall trend of fatalities since the regulation became effective in 2005. Even the CDC, in a 2008 report, showed California fairing better then other states. Their study revealed that North Carolina had the highest heat related deaths among crop workers with a rate of 2.36 per 100,000 workers. This was followed by Florida's rate of .74 and California's rate of .49.

We have systematically implemented our enforcement and outreach where it will have the greatest impact to address heat illness. Cal/OSHA inspections have increased and are on track to surpass the number of inspections in 2008. This year Cal/OSHA has conducted 1,815 inspections compared 2,583 in 2008. Since the first full year of enforcement of the regulations we have seen a consistent increase in compliance. In 2006 noncompliance was 67 percent of all inspections conducted. Today noncompliance is currently at 16 percent. Our efforts have gained traction among the public and employers.

California continues to lead the nation in workplace protections and is proud to serve as a role model for other states.

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