California settles suits over farm workers' heat deaths, agrees to improve safety enforcement

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Family members of two farm workers who died from suspected heat-related illnesses and a labour union have settled their lawsuits against California on the condition that the state do more to ensure labourers are safe when temperatures rise.

The lawsuits, filed in 2009 and 2012, accused the state of repeatedly failing to protect farm workers being denied basic access to water and shade while working in extreme heat in California fields.

The state estimates that 14 workers died from heat-related illnesses in the state between 2005 and 2013, though the United Farm Workers labour union says the figure is closer to 30. One worker who died was 17 years old.

Under terms of the settlement, reached last month and obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health is agreeing to improve enforcement of newly enhanced safety regulations.

“Overall the settlement will make farm workers safer — that is our hope and the state’s hope,” said Brad Phillips, an attorney who represents those who filed the two lawsuits against the state and the safety agency.

The agency has agreed to step up inspections of outdoor work sites during heat waves, take more meaningful action against repeat violators and allow United Farm Workers to play a watchdog role in the process, according to the settlement.

The settlement also requires the agency to conduct two internal audits evaluating its effectiveness and investigate ways to create a publicly available database listing violators and their penalties.

Amy Martin, chief counsel for the agency, said she disagrees with the labour union’s criticism of its past enforcement efforts and that the settlement improves upon work that already was being done.

Regardless, all the terms of the settlement “are going to benefit enforcement and ultimately benefit workers,” she said.

Martin pointed out one aspect of the settlement as particularly interesting — a pilot program to obtain more formal written statements from workers in the field, rather than asking them to show up in person for complaints — an often onerous request for farm workers who are migratory or can’t afford to miss work.

“The upshot of it is, if we’re successful, and if workers are agreeable to signing declarations, it’s worth a shot to see whether or not it improves the weight given to these declarations” and leads to better prosecutions, Martin said.

Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, said he’s confident the settlement will improve worker safety.

“We believe there will be more inspections and that action will take place more quickly, especially against repeat and wilful violators,” he said.

In 2005, California adopted the nation’s first rules requiring shade and water for the state’s farm workers in the wake of 10 heat-related deaths — four of them farm workers — in a two-month period. Two months ago, the state beefed up those regulations, requiring employers to provide shade when temperatures rise above 80 degrees. Workers also must get 10-minute breaks every two hours when temperatures hit 95 degrees.


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