Gov. Orders Shade, Water for Workers Sickened by Heat
Standing with the family of a farmworker who died of heatstroke suffered in a Central Valley field, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday announced emergency orders requiring water and shade for laborers who fall ill in the searing heat.
The regulations mark the first significant rules protecting California farmworkers, construction crews, roofers, landscapers and others from heatrelated illness and death. The state has been contemplating new rules for 15 years, since a Contra Costa County tomato picker seeking shade crawled under a trailer and was run over and killed.
Supporters said the new rules are stronger than in other heat-prone states such as Texas and Arizona, and are a breakthrough on an issue that has divided California’s agricultural industry, farmworker groups and lawmakers, Republican and Democratic alike.
The regulations, expected to take effect in mid-August, would require access to shade for at least five minutes of “recovery time” if a worker feels symptoms of heatstroke, including headache, muscle cramps, vomiting and weakness.
Sources of shade may include umbrellas or a canopy, or workers can sit in a car with the air conditioner running. Many farmworkers toil for hours under the sun, where temperatures can be as much as 15 degrees higher than in the shade.
California health regulations require water to be available for farmworkers -- the only heatrelated protection mandated by the state. The new rules for the first time set an amount: a quart for every employee each hour they work.
Farmers who violate the rules can be cited by California labor inspectors and prosecuted for criminal conduct if they willfully violate the law.
The regulations “should have been done many, many years ago,” said Schwarzenegger, whose wife, Maria Shriver, is the niece of Robert F. Kennedy, an iconic figure among California farmworkers after he embraced their cause in the 1960s.
The governor was greeted Tuesday with cheers and chants of “si, se puede” -- “yes, we can” -- by about a dozen farmworkers in the Capitol’s hallway. They carried flags from the United Farm Workers of America.
Arturo Rodriguez, president of the farm labor group, said the regulations were a “historic breakthrough” spurred by recent deaths in the field, extraordinary heat in recent weeks and the willingness of lawmakers and the Schwarzenegger administration to close a 15-year debate.
“It is tragic that so many farmworkers had to die before action was taken,” he said.
The governor’s regulations come a month after Democrats in the Assembly passed a bill to require that the state issue regulations to prevent on-the-job heat sickness. Every Republican in the Assembly voted against the bill, which is pending now in the Senate.
The measure, AB 805 by Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), would require employers to provide workers at least two gallons of water per eight-hour shift, access to shade and 10-minute hourly breaks during heat waves.
Schwarzenegger announced the new regulations at a news conference attended by the families of two farmworkers who died of heat-related illnesses, including Constantino Cruz, a 24-year-old laborer who arrived from Oaxaca, Mexico, two years ago.
On July 21, Cruz collapsed in a tomato field in the Lost Hills area of western Kern County, during what his family and UFW officials described as a “speed-up” in the sorting of tomatoes from the dirt and vines. The temperature was 105 degrees. He had worked from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a 15-minute break in the morning and a 20-minute lunch break, less than the usual half-hour lunch, the family and officials said.
“The boss was really pushing for a bigger result,” said Antonio Cruz, uncle of Constantino Cruz, speaking through a UFW translator. That day “the machine operator wants them to work hard and fill many truckloads. It was when they were finishing the day that he had a chance to drink water, and that’s when he lost consciousness.”
According to the UFW, Cruz was flown by helicopter to a Bakersfield hospital. He stayed there five days and was discharged. The next day he had a heart attack and suffered brain damage.
Constantino’s three uncles, two brothers and wife -- who joined him in California in April -- bade farewell to him Sunday before he was disconnected from life support in a Delano hospital. The couple’s children -- two sons and a daughter ages 6, 4 and 8 months -- are in Oaxaca.
“It’s very difficult to be a farmworker. It’s hot sometimes. The pay is very, very low -- extremely low -- and too often the growers are asking us to work harder than it’s really possible just so we can make a living,” Antonio Cruz said.
State labor officials are investigating the death. The company that hired Constantino Cruz to work the field, identified by the UFW as R&R; Farm Labor Contracting, could not be reached for comment.
Even before Cruz’s death, three other farmworkers had died in the fields in July. A 42-year-old man picking bell peppers in Arvin collapsed and died in 105-degree heat July 13. A melon picker was found dead the next day in west Fresno County, and a grape picker died a week later under a vine on a Kern County farm. Both were working in about 108-degree heat.
California officials have been working on heat-related regulations since 1990, when Olivia Tiscareno of Antioch wrote to the OSHA standards board after the death of her sister, Rosa Elvia Durazo, who was killed by the tractor trailer under which she had sought refuge from the sun.
“It’s too late for my sister, but please do not let it be too late for others,” Tiscareno wrote.
Farmworkers aren’t the only laborers succumbing to the heat. On July 19 in Fresno, a 42-year-old construction worker, Gonzolo Chavez Jr., was found dead on the ground near a water cooler, Cal-OSHA records show.
Less than a week later in El Centro, Eduardo Martinez Morales, a 48-year-old plasterer, was stricken while shoveling sand into a hopper. Paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive him, according to the state Department of Industrial Relations.
Schwarzenegger officials said they would aggressively enforce the regulations, using a newly formed crew of 64 inspectors devoted to investigating the agriculture industry, sweatshops and the underground economy.
“We intend to have feet in the field,” said Victoria Bradshaw, Schwarzenegger’s labor secretary, who helped write the measures. “We intend to go to the employees ... and we intend to enforce this.”
Schwarzenegger said the rules have a critical component: an education campaign to teach laborers and farmers how to spot symptoms of heatstroke and seek medical help.
“I’ve gone through all this when I was in Mexico doing a movie, ‘Predator,’ ” Schwarzenegger said. “I had no idea. I experienced headaches. I was throwing up, diarrhea, cramps, all of those things. I thought I had maybe caught a bug. The reality was I had to stay in bed for six days ... all because I did not know the symptoms.”
The Cal-OSHA labor standards board is expected to approve the emergency regulations Aug. 12, followed by a 10-day review by the Office of Administrative Law. The measures would be in effect for 120 days, but Schwarzenegger said he would move to make them permanent.
Agriculture groups accepted the new regulations but said they wanted to use the 120-day period to test them. Along with Schwarzenegger, some in the industry are recommending that farmers implement the regulations immediately, even before they are official.
“Do we think they are perfect? I wouldn’t say that,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. “But I think the need and timeliness of getting them out as soon as possible overrides any of that right now.”
Some worker advocates say they are troubled that the regulations do not require employers to shade workers during breaks and lunches, and that they put the onus on workers who are feeling sick to ask for a break. And they said the regulations will do nothing to protect workers in packinghouses, restaurants and other hot, enclosed places.
Martha Guzman, legislative director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said the regulations would be difficult to enforce and may not provide enough relief. For example, Guzman said, a worker could be given an umbrella and forced to continue working.
Shade “should be used as a preventive measure. That’s why you should have it during your breaks,” Guzman said.
Assemblywoman Chu called the new regulations “a good first step” but also expressed concern that they don’t guarantee workers shade during all rest periods. Rather, they call for recommendations on the provision of shade by Jan. 1.
“The positive thing about the regulations is that they say that when the worker feels they are facing a heatstroke,” Chu said, “they will be provided with a source of shade.”