Stricter laws to protect farm workers?

SACRAMENTO, Calif. With temperatures rising, the tougher heat regulations for outdoor workers would come just in time.

After listening to numerous people testify, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Cal/OSHA) put off voting on new emergency guidelines designed to take effect immediately with a temperature trigger.

While California has mandated shade and water breaks since 2005, companies and workers are fighting over when it's hot enough for those requirements to kick in. Anything above 85 degrees would be considered "high heat" conditions.

"There's still non-compliance out there. And hopefully by providing a little more clarity to the regulations, we help get some of those employers to come into compliance," said Dean Fryer, Calif. Dept. of Industrial Relations.

Oddly enough, under the blaring sun, United Farm Workers and attorneys for the ACLU blasted the move.

"One of the primary problems with this emergency regulations is that it's rife with loopholes and exceptions," said Gabriel Sanchez, ACLU attorney.

They give the example of the water requirement. Farmers provide it, but some charge $2 per bottle.

"The supervisor would bring ice chests filled with water and other drinks that he would sell to us," said Mauricio Alvarez, farm worker.

Then there's the enforcement issue. The family of Maria Isabel Jimenez has joined the fight. She was the pregnant 17-year-old who died last summer after collapsing in a vineyard when the temperatures peaked at 95 degrees.

"If these regulations were actually enforced, Maria Isabel would be with us today," said Doroteo Jimenez, Maria Isabel's uncle.

Cal/OSHA says enforcement has and will continue to be stepped up. The agency has hired more inspectors and has issued nearly $2 million in citations last year compared to less than a million in 2007. It hopes to make the emergency regulations permanent.

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