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Central Valley Farmers Adapt To New Heat Protection Rules For Farmworkers

Thousands of farmworkers travel all over the Central Valley on a daily basis to pick crops under some very hot weather. As FM89’s Diana Aguilera reports farmers now have to comply with new regulations to avoid heat illness and deaths among workers.

Farmer Joe Del Bosque, owner of Del Bosque Farms, knows what it’s like to work in the valley’s hot temperatures. He’s been doing it his whole life.

“I grew up with this kind of work by the time I was 10, 11-years-old I was actually picking melons,” Del Bosque says.

We’re walking through his cantaloupe field near Firebaugh. There’s a crew of 20 workers, some pick the melons others pack them up and then load the boxes to a tractor. Today wasn’t the hottest day but it was already approaching 90 degrees and it wasn’t even noon.

Working outside when it’s this hot can be dangerous especially if you’re not hydrated and don’t have the opportunity to cool down. That’s why the state safety agency CAL OSHA issued new stricter regulations on how to prevent heat related illnesses and deaths. Del Bosque says he was quick to respond but the rules do put more pressure on employers.

"Yeah they're making a lot of farmers uncomfortable because they're requiring them to do more ... I just know that I've adopted them. It's in our best interest to make sure they're healthy and working." -Joe Del Bosque

Under the new regulations, employers have to place water closer to workers and provide shade that would shelter all employees. And when it reaches 95 degrees they must provide 10 minutes of break every two hours for agricultural workers. The rules took effect in May and are aimed at protecting anyone who works outside whether it’s on a farm, a construction site, or on roads.

This is all in an effort to stop heat related illnesses and deaths that still happen among workers.

“I think that these new heat stress regulations certainly have more of an impact in an area like the central valley where it does get routinely above 95 degrees,” says Cal Watkins, a Fresno based lawyer who teaches local businesses about the new rules.

Watkins says employers are reaching out to him to learn more in order to avoid hefty fines by the state agency.

“I know that CAL OSHA representatives have been out in the fields and I know that there’s a push to make sure that not only agricultural employers but all employers are complying with these new regulations.”

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Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio
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Valley Public Radio
Workers from Del Bosque Farms rest in a trailer during one of their morning breaks.

Under the new rules, employers have to provide shade for workers when it’s 80 degrees or higher. Previously, it was 85 degrees.

At Del Bosque Farms near Firebaugh, farmworker Pablo -who didn’t want to share his last name- is picking cantaloupes along with the rest of his crew. He’s the foreman and is in charge of making sure the workers know when to take breaks.

“It’s time for these stricter regulations to exist,” Pablo says. “And I think it’s a good thing for California to protect us farmworkers so there’s less and less cases.”

"I know that CAL OSHA representatives have been out in the fields and I know that there's a push to make sure that not only agricultural employers but all employers are complying with these new regulations." -Cal Watkins

He’s referring to cases of heat related illnesses or deaths. He says while there hasn’t been a fatality in his workplace, he has heard of cases nearby. The state agency CAL OSHA reports 38 heat related deaths in the past decade, while other groups suggest the number is much higher. And just for 2014, CAL OSHA indicates 43 heat related illnesses among outdoor workers.

Even though the new regulations just went into effect the state is already sending out inspectors to enforce the rules. In addition to the law, researchers from UC Davis are working on trying to learn more about how to prevent heat related illnesses and deaths in the future.

Diana Aguilera is a multimedia reporter native of Santiago, Chile. It was during her childhood in Santiago where her love for journalism sparked. Diana moved to Fresno while in her teens and is a proud graduate of California State University, Fresno. While earning her degree in journalism and minor in Latin American studies, Diana worked for the Fresno Bee. Her work as a general assignment reporter continued after college and was recognized by the California Newspaper Publishers Association. In 2014, she joined Valley Public Radio. Her hobbies include yoga, traveling and reading.