Farmworkers sue Calif. regulators over heat rules

FRESNO, Calif. -- The United Farm Workers of America sued California's work safety division Thursday, saying state regulators aren't enforcing heat regulations, leading to continued illnesses and deaths in the fields.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the union and individual farmworkers, alleges that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health failed in the last two years to conduct inspections in response to some heat complaints, didn't initiate inspections on time, and failed to cite or adequately fine violators.

The agency said in a statement that it has "issued hundreds of citations and penalties for heat safety standard violations" and that "the lawsuit filed today risks draining resources away from these critical enforcement actions."

An ongoing lawsuit filed in 2009 alleged similar violations in earlier years.

At least 14 farmworkers have died of heat-related causes since 2005, when California adopted the nation's first rules requiring shade and water for the state's 450,000 farmworkers.

There were three confirmed heat-related fatalities in 2008, none in 2009, none in 2010 and one last year. Four deaths this summer are being investigated.

The heat rules require employers with outdoor workers to establish and implement emergency procedures, and to provide training on heat illness prevention, drinking water _ at least 1 quart per hour per employee _ and shade when temperatures are above 85 degrees.

State regulators say increased enforcement has paid off with greater compliance. In 2011, inspectors conducted 1,090 heat inspections and devoted a third of the agency's resources to heat illness prevention, said spokesman Dean Fryer.

According to Cal/OSHA's data, a quarter of the employers inspected in 2011 did not obey the heat rules _ though compliance has greatly increased since the rules were first implemented.

According to the suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, in the summer of 2011, UFW staff filed or assisted farm workers in filing 78 complaints reporting serious violations of the rules. The suit states that Cal/OSHA failed to conduct any on-site inspection for at least 55 of the 78 complaints, did not initiate an inspection within three days for at least 43 of the 78 complaints, and despite documented violations, issued a citation for violation in only three of the 78 cases.

In one example mentioned in the suit, a UFW organizer in July 2011 observed approximately 25 workers at Valpredo Farms working in 90-degree heat with only a small beach umbrella provided for shade. Another crew of 40 workers was provided no shade at all. A complaint was filed, but Cal/OSHA did not investigate until two weeks later, the suit contends. On that date, investigators observed no employees working at the site, and the agency closed the case soon thereafter.

The agency, which has 200 inspectors, has acknowledged challenges in the past. Cal/OSHA has said inspectors have trouble verifying allegations in some cases where workers were no longer present at a site, where inspectors couldn't find the site, or where the violation was no longer present.

Data show that 89 of the 185 heat complaints filed with the agency in 2010 and 2011 had not resulted in on-site inspections.

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed two bills that would have increased penalties and imposed jail time for farmers who do not to provide adequate shade and water to their workers.