Sunday, August 13, 2006

Why Do California Workers Continue To Die From Heat?

In June, the state of California issued a regulation to protect outdoor workers from heat. The standard called for training, drinking water and shade for workers who are "suffering from heat illness or believing a preventative recovery period is needed."

David Woodfill of the Palm Springs Desert Sun notes that California's new heat regulations don't seem to be stopping worker deaths:
The California division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, said there’s been no decrease in the number of fatalities this year compared to the same period last year. Like last summer, the state has grappled with record high temperatures this year.

So far 10 fatalities within agriculture, construction and other industries may be attributed to excessive heat exposure. That’s the same number of fatalities that occurred this time last year when the state was slogging through record high temperatures.
So what's the problem?
Cal/OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer said his agency didn’t know why the number fatalities haven’t shrunk.
Well let's see if we can't try to figure it out. Woodfill and Fryer need to study some workplace realities -- real incentives and disincentives for workers -- and a good place to start might be a letter sent to the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board from Worksafe last April. Worksafe is a Coalition for Occuapational Safety and Health (COSH) group in California.

The letter, authored by Worksafe volunteer Fran Schreiberg, called for shade to be provided "during preventative recovery periods, meal periods, and during other rest periods the employer provides. " Worksafe wrote that
The OSH Standards Board proposal includes Access to Shade for preventative recovery periods, but must also require shade for meal and rest periods. Shade during meal and rest periods is necessary because workers will then have a longer opportunity to recover from the heat. It provides an incentive for workers to take the rest and meal breaks which the law already requires because it will be more comfortable. And providing for shade during these other periods reduces the risk that workers will seek shade in unsafe areas such as under equipment or under orchard trees which are posted for pesticides.
Worksafe also warned that the provision of recovery periods must not rely on worker requests:
The OSH Standards Board proposal leaves the onus on the individual worker to ask for the preventative recovery period. Workers, particularly low wage workers, are not likely to ask for help because they fear they will lose their job. Too often we hear about workers losing their jobs or getting demoted if they voice complaints about not receiving rest and meal periods which are already required by law. Giving the worker the duty to ask for a preventative recovery period is not realistic. Inevitably, workers will risk their health and as a result suffer from heat related illnesses rather than jeopardize their employment.

Requesting a preventative recovery period may not be possible when a worker is suffering from heat illness. Requesting a preventative recovery period is particularly problematic for an employee who is suffering from heat illness because one of the symptoms is confusion. Thus the employee may not even be able to ask for help.
The letter contains lot of aother suggestions to improve the standard as well.

In other words, if workers fear being fired for complaining about a health and safety problem, or if asking for an extra rest break means a cut in their pay because their quota won't be met, they won't be as likely to complain. That's why automatic, preventive shade breaks are better -- because they're preventive and don't require the worker to stick his or her neck out.

So Dean, now might be a good time to go back and look at Worksafe's letter, and maybe even commission an independent investigation of why the standard doesn't seem to be working. Not only will you save lives, but California can set an example for the 49 other states. And given Global Warming, now might be the time to figure this stuff out.