The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Five-minute Breaks Leave Cali. Farmworkers Feeling Heat

by Shreema Mehta

With farmworkers sickening and sometimes dying on the job from the high temperatures they work under, California is mandating water and shade, but only in small amounts.

June 22, 2006 – As summer heats up, outdoor workers in California will continue to toil in temperatures that will rise to triple digits, leaving them vulnerable to heat-related ailments. After a spate of worker deaths last year, the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health has passed the first standards in the nation designed to protect outdoor workers from heat stress.

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Under the new rules, which make emergency regulations set in 2005 permanent, employers must provide workers four cups of water per hour and access to shade for at least five minutes per shift. The standards also require that employers brief workers on preventing and identifying illnesses like heat stroke and heat exhaustion, as well as detailing an emergency plan if someone becomes ill.

While the United Farm Workers union (UFW) supports the measure, a health-advocacy group for California workers called Worksafe says the measure does nothing more than acknowledge employees’ right to shade and puts the burden of asking for breaks on workers.

"We essentially asked that this be a more-proactive regulation," said Fran Schreiberg, executive director of Worksafe. "You can’t wait for people to ask for breaks." Schreiberg pointed out that people suffering from heat stress often experience impaired judgment. "You may not know you’re becoming ill or that you have to ask for a break," she said.

Juana Carbajal, a grape harvester at Giumarra Vineyards in Edison, California, said that even when workers know they have the right to take a break, many still feel they should not.

"When the grape harvest starts, sometimes its 100 and 101 [degrees. Out there in the fields, it gets really hot. They’re always rushing you. When we’re working, we don’t have time to drink water the way we should."

"When the grape harvest starts, sometimes its 100 and 101 [degrees]," she told The NewStandard. "Out there in the fields, it gets really hot. They’re always rushing you. When we’re working, we don’t have time to drink water the way we should."

Carbajal, who is a member of the UFW and has been a harvester for Giumarra for ten years, said that when packing produce, those working at a below-average speed are sometimes temporarily taken off the clock and docked pay. "If you miss one of the boxes you get punished. They tell you to stop working for a few hours," she said.

A representative from Giumarra Companies refused to comment.

Carbajal said she supports the new regulations as a good first step, but said states should do more to protect workers from heat stress, such as requiring paid sick leave and raising the minimum shade time.

"I recall from last year that the heat was terrible and a lot of people get sick," she said. "And if you got sick they would send you home without pay."

Of the shade provision, Carbajal said, "If there’s people throwing up, five minutes is a little bit," she said. "But it’s a start."

Schreiberg said the state should not make workers responsible for their own breaks and should instead adopt a heat-stress prevention model based on National Weather Service calculations for how often workers should break depending on the temperature and humidity level.

If breaks were mandated, I think [workers] would take them, but they want to work as much as possible."

But Tom Mitchell, an industrial hygienist for California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, defended putting the burden of enforcing these rights on the employees, saying it is not unique. "This is not different from other areas, [such as when] people are concerned about asking for a restroom break," he said.

Mitchell said that routine inspections by DOSH and workers filing complaints will help enforce the rules.

UFW spokesperson Marc Grossman said the union supports the measure as the most politically feasible step to protect outdoor workers, but said expecting workers to file complaints is an ineffective cushion against employer abuse.

"The great majority of the force is undocumented [immigrants]," he said. "Those folks are much less likely to go to the government for help. Often it’s the worker advocates that will file the complaint."

In 2005, the California Department of Safety and Health investigated 25 reported cases of hospitalization and death related to heat illness, detailing its findings in a report used in discussions of the standards. Out of the 25 reported cases, officials reported nine hospitalizations that lasted longer than a day, and thirteen deaths.

The report found that in many cases, employers did not spot heat-related symptoms in workers until it was too late.

The study also found that "most" of the work sites examined in the investigation had scheduled breaks, and 77 percent of workplaces provided shade during break time, though the rate was lower in agricultural settings.

But critics said only mandatory shade breaks will protect workers, especially farmworkers, who often get paid according to the amount they produce rather than an hourly rate.

Advocates also said the new standards should apply to workers in factories, industrial laundries or kitchens, where the heat and humidity can easily reach levels faced by summertime fieldworkers.

"It’s pretty common in certain crops to be paid by the piece," said Carol Brooke, staff attorney with North Carolina Justice Center who handles migrant workers’ cases.

Under that payment system, "you’re looking to work as hard as you can and as fast as you can," Brooke said. "They’re not necessarily looking for breaks. If they were mandated, I think [workers] would take them, but they want to work as much as possible."

Robert Harrison, a professor of occupational medicine at the University of California–San Francisco, added that the state should also target heat-related injuries when collecting data. "There is no specific effort to look at heat stress," he said, though the California Workers’ Compensation Board collects data on injuries overall.

Advocates also said the new standards should apply to workers in factories, industrial laundries or kitchens, where the heat and humidity can easily reach levels faced by summertime fieldworkers.

Other states have no guidelines regarding heat stress. While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issues advisories, it has no national regulations like California’s, according to spokesperson Elizabeth Todd.

The rate of illnesses and deaths due to heat stress is difficult to measure. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18 fatalities and more than 1,500 injuries from environmental heat factors were reported in 2004. But OSHA officials and advocates for workers say the injury numbers are an underestimate, since employers are required to report all fatalities, but only hospitalizations of three or more people.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


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This News Article originally appeared in the June 22, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

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