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Farmers, Government Seek to Prevent Heat Illness

Jul 26, 2011

It's mid-morning under a sunny and nearly cloudless sky at Paul Betancourt's farm, about 20 miles southwest of Kerman. Two workers are getting ready to disk the wheat field with the tractor and irrigate the cotton. Betancourt has been monitoring the temperature.

"It was 86 when you drove up and the forecast for Fresno is 99," he says. "It's usually a little cooler out here. We've kinda done the heavy lifting for the day already."

One of his employees, Ruben Elenes, has been a farmworker for 15 years. He knows how to protect himself from the sun.

"Clothing with long sleeves, a sombrero, drink plenty of water," Elenes says in Spanish through an interpreter.

Even with years of experience working outdoors, Elenes and the two other employees on Betancourt's farm have taken state-mandated classes on heat illness prevention. Those measures are what enforcement officials from the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, are looking for this summer.

Cal/OSHA is now investigating six possible heat-related deaths that have occurred since the spring. Two were farmworkers in Southern California. Officials are inspecting outdoor work sites to ensure employers are providing adequate water and shade to protect their employees from heat illness, as required by law. They've handed out nearly 150 heat violation citations this year in different industries. Farmworker advocates say the state hasn't done enough. Farmers like Betancourt are concerned about the subjective and potentially confusing nature of the regulations.

"For a harvesting crew, you're supposed to have shade within a three-minute walk," Betancourt says. "Well, what does that mean? We wanna do the right thing and we don't want to get penalized, so how do we kinda negotiate what that means?"

And last year, the state added regulations specifically for agriculture, construction and three other outdoor industries when temperatures reach 95 degrees. Employers must watch new workers for signs of heat illness and remind all employees to drink water regularly.

United Farm Workers spokeswoman Maria Machuca says there's little reason for employers to complain about safety laws.

"When it comes to the heat laws, it is tedious for them, but it is saving the life of a farmworker, of a human being," she says.

In the emergency department of Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, Dr. Kenny Banh has treated farmworkers and other outdoor laborers for heat illnesses.

"Before I even get to treatment, the number one treatment is prevention," Dr. Banh says. "These are completely preventable deaths and should never happen."

Sweating and thirst are the obvious signs of heat illness. But he says nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness are also symptoms of heat exhaustion. It all has to do with the loss of fluids.

"It's hard to carry around gallons of water, and it's not unreasonable to see people lose two liters an hour working out in the fields," he says. "And that's a really hard amount to replace. That's a lot of fluid to drink and that's a lot of fluid to carry around."

In 2005, California introduced the nation's first heat regulations after a spike in heat-related worker deaths. Ag groups like the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno have partnered with Cal/OSHA to develop heat illness workshops, handouts and items such as shade tents and ice chests printed with safety reminders.

Manuel Cunha Jr. is president of the Nisei Farmers League. He says Cal/OSHA is a good collaborator, although he believes communication needs to improve on all sides to eliminate confusion over the laws. He says farmers can't micromanage laborers, and the employees have to take responsibility for their own health. A new generation of workers raised on sodas and sports drinks needs to learn that unhealthy habits can cause problems on the job.

"You can't tell a worker how to eat, you can't tell a worker how to drink," Cunha says. "If he wants to drink a Pepsi at his mealtime or during his break, that's fine, he has a right to do that. No one has ever said that an employee needs to have his or her own responsibility. If the water's there and they chose not to drink and they had a heat attack, what are we supposed to do?"

Maria Machuca of the UFW takes a different view. She says farmworkers face consequences if they ask for breaks.

"That argument is kinda funny," she adds. "It's like saying, 'I will fire you if you don't produce this amount. Now, you can drink water if you want, but if you get behind you'll get fired.' So I think that if they really wanted their workers to drink water and feel comfortable, they would put that water right where they can go and get it and not miles away from where they're working."

The UFW visits work sites to check on water and shade, and Machuca says farmworkers have reported dirty water and poorly constructed shade tents. The union has created its own public service campaign to educate farmworkers on heat illness and their rights at work.

Cal/OSHA officials say they understand concerns about individual and employer responsibilities. Bill Krycia is a regional manager for Cal/OSHA enforcement and the state's heat enforcement coordinator. He says the department works with employers and provides training to make sure they understand the extent of their responsibilities.

"Employees have to be trained," he says. "They have to be trained in the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness. The standard requires that they be reminded they need to drink water frequently throughout the day. And if an employer is doing that, they'll be in compliance."

While the heat affects many who work outside, Dr. Banh is especially concerned about farmworkers.

"The problem with farmworkers is they're often spread out across a very large area and so it's fairly easy to have somebody get lost, pass out and not be found," he says.

When summer rolls around, even the most experienced outdoor worker has to adapt to the rise in temperature. With the proper precautions, heat does not have to disrupt work or lives.