United Farm Workers, a farm worker advocacy organization, is asking the state of Washington to issue workplace regulations regarding heat — similar to the protections the organization helped establish in California. But even California’s farm workers have complaints.
UFW’s push comes after a farm worker died while at work moving irrigation lines in Oregon. The fatality was listed with “heat” as the preliminary reason.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health mandates that in temperatures at or above 95 degrees, employers must provide a minimum of 10-minute rest breaks every two hours.
CAl/OSHA also requires shade to be present when the temperature exceeds 80 degrees, and shade should still be available upon request otherwise.
These laws do not exist in Washington, and some Santa Barbara County farms don’t follow all requirements, according to advocacy groups.
Mid-May, a caravan drove through rural areas in Santa Barbara County to inform farm workers of their rights to COVID-19 leave and heat protections.
Making a Cal/OSHA complaint is a long process, one that groups say favors farm owners, so workers can face dangerous conditions despite statewide laws.
“Most inspections only happen after workers file formal complaints over violations, and then companies are notified that a Cal/OSHA inspection is going to take place, giving them little incentive to ensure safe conditions in the first place,” Lucas Zucker, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy policy and communications director, told the News-Press.
“The best way to protect the health and safety of farmworkers during heat waves is proactive inspections of drinking water and shade facilities in the fields,” he said.
Workers can stray far from the shade as they harvest rows, making it a long walk to safety if heat illness begins to set in.
Employers must also provide farm workers one quart of water each hour, but sometimes this water isn’t clean, cool or accessible, says Mr. Zucker.
“Extreme heat days are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change, putting farmworkers and other outdoor workers at greater risk,” he said.
California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, published by the California Energy Commission in 2018, predicts an increase of two degrees in Santa Barbara County’s annual average maximum temperature over 30 years.
As generations pass, the heat will be felt by farmworkers year-round. Furthermore, Cal/OSHA hasn’t established a standard for when it’s too hot to work, which proves dangerous in hotter inland areas.
When pay is set by production instead of hourly labor, paychecks are on the line as well.