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Focus is on problem employers

Vida en el Valle

(Published Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 09:34AM)

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EASTON -- Farm labor contractor Miguel Cuevas knows that his employees might need to take to time rest while working in the fields during the blazing San Joaquín Valley summers.

Some growers, though, get upset when farmworkers take a break to rehydrate in the shade, he said. They ignore farmworkers' health needs -- and the state's heat illness prevention law, which requires employers to provide outdoor workers with water, rest and shade.

But Cuevas knows it his obligation to protect the health of his employees.

"I have to care for the people," Cuevas said in Spanish.

Cuevas is among many employers who strive to follow the state's health and safety regulations, which are intended to prevent outdoor workers from suffering from heat illness.

Since 2005, when the law was implemented, the rate of employer compliance with the rules has increased, and heat illness deaths have dropped, according to the state Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Last year, 76 percent of employers complied with the heat regulations, up from 32 percent in 2006. There were just two heat-related deaths in outdoor industries last summer, compared with eight in 2006.

This year, department inspectors will be searching for employers who not following labor laws, including not following the heat illness prevention law, which requires them to provide outdoor workers with cool, fresh water, a shaded area to cool down, and adequate rest periods.

"Our enforcement approach is more targeted this year than it was in the past," said Cal/OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer.

The department intends to gather information -- including payroll and workers' compensation data -- from partner agencies, "so we can get right to the problem areas and address the problem employers, rather than bothering people who are by and large in compliance," he said.

"We need to go after the bad guys -- that is the focus." As inspectors target their enforcement efforts on the worst employers, the department will also continue to educate employers and employees about the heat illness regulations, through training seminars and outreach campaigns.

"We can't rest on our laurels," said Chris Lee, Cal/OSHA deputy chief of enforcement. "It is critical to get the word out through training, education, and outreach." As part of this effort, Cal/OSHA, and more than 20 agricultural organizations, including the Nisei Farmers League, kicked off the first of many free heat seminars last Thursday morning.

More than 400 farm labor contractors, supervisors and growers packed inside C.P.D.E.S. Hall for the first, Spanish-language seminar. Outside were displays featuring bright-colored shade tents, Igloo water coolers, advertisements, and posters, all emblazoned with the heat regulations in many languages, including English, Spanish, Mixteco, Punjabi and Hmong.

The significant increase in compliance with the regulations, and the strong attendance at last week's heat prevention seminar, are proof that the agriculture industry is taking the law seriously, said Nisei Farmers League president Manuel Cunha.

The challenge, he said, is reaching the growers who are still out of compliance -- possibly due to lack of information, language and cultural barriers, or human error.

"We are going to have employers who may not do anything, that exists -- but our goal is to get every employer with the information," Cunha said. "The industry is doing a lot to prevent heat illness, but people are human."

Cal/OSHA will hold heat illness prevention seminars in Tulare on Thursday (April 12,) Bakersfield on April 18, and Modesto on April 26.

For more information about the heat illness regulations, visit www.99calor.org.

Send e-mail to:

rplevin@vidaenelvalle.com

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