Cal-OSHA set­tles farm­worker suits

State agency Cal-OSHA agrees to re­fo­cus its en­force­ment of reg­u­la­tions pro­tect­ing la­bor­ers from heat ill­ness and death.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Ge­of­frey Mo­han ge­of­frey.mo­han@la­times.com

The agency will re­fo­cus its en­force­ment of heat-re­lated reg­u­la­tions and make com­plaints more ac­ces­si­ble.

The state’s worker safety agency has agreed to re­fo­cus its en­force­ment of heat-re­lated reg­u­la­tions cov­er­ing farm­work­ers, au­dit those ac­tiv­i­ties and make com­plaints more ac­ces­si­ble to the public as part of a set­tle­ment of two law­suits.

The agree­ment, an­nounced Wed­nes­day, set­tles suits brought on be­half of five farm­work­ers and the United Farm Work­ers union. They ac­cused the Cal­i­for­nia Di­vi­sion of Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health, Cal-OSHA, of sys­tem­at­i­cally ne­glect­ing its duty to en­force a 2005 law pro­tect­ing out­door work­ers from ex­po­sure to heat.

The agency pledged to main­tain a task force that will re­view em­ploy­ers’ heat ill­ness pre­ven­tion plans and in­crease scru­tiny of out­door work­places dur­ing high-heat pe­ri­ods. The agency also agreed to con­duct two au­dits of its en­force­ment ac­tiv­i­ties this year and in 2016, and al­low the UFW ac­cess to those doc­u­ments. Cal-OSHA also will im­ple­ment an elec­tronic track­ing sys­tem for com­plaints and make them avail­able “in a man­ner that is un­der­stand­able to the av­er­age per­son,” ac­cord­ing to the set­tle­ment.

A sep­a­rate mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing out­lines how the agency and the union will han­dle heat com­plaints, a cen­tral el­e­ment of the suits. UFW al­leged that in 2011 alone, the agency failed to con­duct on-site in­spec­tions in 55 of the 78 com­plaints the union filed or helped to file.

UFW at­tor­ney Mario Martinez called the set­tle­ment “an im­proved step in pro­tect­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s farm­work­ers from heat ill­ness and heat death” and said he hopes “Cal­i­for­nia’s model will be em­u­lated in other states.”

Since the Heat Ill­ness Pre­ven­tion reg­u­la­tion first was passed in 2005, 28 farm­work­ers have died “of what likely were heat ill­nesses,” the union al­leged. “It was a pat­tern of Cal-OSHA fail­ing to in­ves­ti­gate, fail­ing to is­sue ci­ta­tions, fail­ing to fol­low up on ci­ta­tions. It was a broad spec­trum of con­duct un­der the more sim­ple al­le­ga­tion that the state wasn’t do­ing its job to en­force the laws that were on the books,” Martinez said.

Cal-OSHA noted that none of the agree­ment pro­vi­sions cre­ates new “en­force­able obligations” for the agency, adding that much of it ei­ther was un­der dis­cus­sion or had al­ready been im­ple­mented ear­lier this year.

“They were gen­er­ally things we were al­ready do­ing,” said Cal-OSHA gen­eral coun­sel Amy Martin. “It’s more of a state­ment of co­op­er­a­tion that will lead to bet­ter em­ployee safety.”

Un­der reg­u­la­tions is­sued this year and re­it­er­ated in the agree­ment, em­ploy­ers now will have to place wa­ter closer to work­ers, pro­vide shade that would shel­ter all of them, and in cases of high heat, pro­vide 10 min­utes of break for ev­ery two hours of work.

Jo­ce­lyn Sher­man As­so­ci­ated Press

FARM­WORK­ERS carry crosses bear­ing the names of Cal­i­for­nia field la­bor­ers who died from the heat dur­ing a march in June 2008.

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