Sunday, July 31, 2005

California Proposes Heat Regulation

Those who don't know, think that there are people around -- scientists, public health officials, government officials and the like, who sit around trying to figure out what hazards might be facing workers and coming up with laws and regulations that make sure people are protected. That would be called prevention.

Those who know realize that no progress is ever made until there's a body count. Then everyone cries "Oy! we must do something. People are dying!"

Over the last month, five California workers died of heat related illness. CalOSHA, to its credit, has now proposed an emergency standard to protect workers against the dangers of working in high heat. It's an emergency standard because previously there were not standards to protect people working in high heat -- no requirements for water, a shadey place to rest, break times or training about the signs of symptoms of heat related illness and how to prevent it.

The standard will:
  • Require education of employees and supervisors likely to be exposed to heat stress on how to prevent heat-related illness and what to do should it occur.

  • Reiterate existing law requiring water -- at least a quart an hour for each worker -- to be available at all times, and ensure that workers understand the importance of drinking water frequently.

  • Require that access to a shaded area is available to any worker suffering from heat illness or needing shade to prevent the onset of illness. "Shade" means blockage of direct sunlight by such things as umbrellas and tarps, not trees or vines, as some farm supervisors were trying to argue.

  • Require the board to review, by no later than Jan. 1, the feasibility of providing shade for rest periods for outdoor employment.
  • Employers are also prohibited from retaliating against workers who exercise their heat-protection rights.
Even the California grape industry is supporting the regulations, making sure that everyone knows workers aren't just dying in agriculture.
Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League in Fresno, said he was "gratified the administration has acted in a timely manner.

"These regulations apply to all employees outdoors, a basic point that has to be understood," he said. "The sun does not play favorites."
The CalOSHA Standards Board will vote in early August to approve the emergency regulations, but they will only be in effect for 120 days unless the Board makes them permanent.

California Assembly Member Judy Chu has also proposed Assembly Bill 805 is aimed at forcing permanent regulations to protect farmworkers from heat stress, although the industry is opposing it.

Three of the five victims of the heat died in the fields. Two were construction workers:

  • Salud Zamudio Rodriguez, a 43-year-old fieldworker who died while harvesting bell peppers July 13 near Arvin.

  • Ramon Hernandez, 42, who was found dead in a melon field near Huron on July 15.

  • Gonzolo Chavez Jr., a laborer who was found dead at a golf course construction site near Marks Avenue and Kearney Boulevard in Fresno on July19.

  • Augustine Gudino, 42, of Visalia, whose body was found in a Kern County vineyard July 21.

  • Eduardo Martinez Morales, a 48-year-old plasterer, who collapsed and died at a job site in El Centro.
The background information on Chu's bill points out that heat related fatalities are nothing new:
Between 1996 and 1999, DOSH investigated eleven work-related fatalities in manufacturing (3), construction (2), wild land fire fighting (2) and agriculture (4). Between 2002 and 2004, at least two additional heat stroke fatalities occurred in agriculture. According to the national survey of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses, The Division of Labor Statistics and Research, California industry had a total of 168 lost workdays from exposure to environmental heat in 1992 and 153 in 1998. Heat illness cases are severely underreported and may be recorded as heart attack or kidney failure.
Note that last sentence again. When I worked at OSHA, I received a weekly workplace fatality report. Every week there were heart attacks that generally weren't investigated because they were assumed to be due to "natural causes." Who knows how many of those may have been heat related, and who knows how many heat-related "heart attacks"are never even reported to OSHA.

Everyone's happy now -- except the families of the workers for whom the regulations have come too late:
"These emergency regulations are a historic breakthrough for farmworkers," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers. "It is tragic that farmworkers had to die before government took action. But Gov. Schwarzenegger has done what three previous governors didn't do — he, Sen. Dean Florez and Assembly Member Judy Chu [D-Monterey Park] took action, and we applaud them."
More here and here.

More information on the hazards of heat can be found here:

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