BUSINESS

Cal-OSHA settles farmworker suits over heat-related deaths

UFW sees 'a pattern of Cal-OSHA failing to investigate' complaints about working conditions on farms

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.

geoffrey.mohan@latimes.com

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