The agreement ends two lawsuits, brought in 2009 and 2012, over the denial of access to water, shade and basic amenities in the brutal summer heat of the Central Valley. The UFW says 28 people died from the heat between 2005 and 2013, while the state only cops to 17, according to Associated Press.
The union has accused Cal-OSHA of systematically ignoring the plight of workers and not conducting inspections in 55 of 78 officially-filed complaints in 2011 alone.
When 13 workers died of heat-related illness in 2005, California passed the Heat Illness Prevention Standard. It has four basic rules for employers: Give workers some water; give them some shade; let them rest before they get sick; and work on a plan for taking proper care of them.
Workers kept dying and the UFW kept complaining.
California employed 417,500 farmworkers in 2014 (a monthly average). Although roughly 500,000 acres were fallowed by the drought, employment was up about 6,000 from the year before.
State lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 2346 in August 2012 to “reduce the risk of heat illness among agricultural workers.” The law, co-sponsored by the UFW, requires that water be available within 10 feet of workers and shade within 200 feet. Each employee can have a personal cup or canteen.
There should be enough water available to provide one quart per hour to each worker. Nobody gets dinged for taking a drinking break and “drinking of water shall be encouraged and permitted.” It provides hefty penalties for those who break the rules and allows farmworkers to sue over failed conditions.
The law was not enough.
One weakness was alluded to in a legislative analysis of AB 2346: “According to the Senate Appropriations Committee, this bill will result in major costs annually to the Occupational Safety and Health Fund in the Department of Industrial Relations.”
State government has not been doling out a lot of extra money for regulatory oversight since the Great Recession, and Cal-OSHA was slow to ramp up its activities. Righteous regulatory zeal is so 20th Century.
As part of the settlement, the agency will increase inspections, target repeat offenders and give the UFW access to internal Cal-OSHA performance audits. It will be easier to report violations and there will be clear guidelines on how Cal-OSHA is to respond.
Underlying complaints by the UFW is the accusation that the 2005 law is still not being enforced.
Cal-OSHA flipped that on its head when general counsel Amy Martin told the Los Angeles Times that the settlement terms “were generally things we were already doing. It's more of a statement of cooperation that will lead to better employee safety.”