Heat on as worker safety violators pursued

As the weather heats up in the San Joaquin Valley, state labor officials are cracking down on employers who violate California's heat-illness prevention regulations.

Last month, four farm labor contractors in the Coachella area and one in Escondido were shut down by a multi-agency task force responsible for enforcing the law that is designed to protect workers from heat-related illnesses.

Members of the Economic Employment Enforcement Coalition found violations such as not providing workers with shade and having less than a single gallon of water for 15 workers on a day when the temperature was as high as 116 degrees.

More enforcement sweeps are expected, including in the San Joaquin Valley.

Violation earns a closure

Erika Monterroza, spokeswoman for California's Department of Industrial Relations, said the shutdown orders are used by inspectors when they find an imminent hazard to an employee's health.

The order remains in effect until the employer fixes the problem. In some cases it is as simple as providing the appropriate shade or water.

"It's not like we are saying you are going to be out of business forever," Monterroza said.

"We are there to assist them. But the fact is that employers are required to assess their workplace and look at all the risks that might exist for their employees."

California toughened its worker protection rules and increased enforcement in 2005 after a string of farm worker deaths.

Last year, 2,584 inspections were conducted and 1,134 citations issued. Since January, enforcement has increased, with more than 850 inspections and more than 250 citations for violations of the heat-illness prevention standards.

In March, the state along with several agricultural groups began a series of educational workshops to increase compliance with the heat-illness regulations.

More than 4,000 growers and 1,000 farm labor contractors are expected to attend the training sessions, which will be held at various locations this summer.

Under the state's rules, employers must follow four elements of heat-illness prevention: providing water and encouraging workers to drink it; providing access to shade; training on how to recognize heat illness; and writing reports showing compliance efforts.

Why not a warning?

Salinas-based farm labor contractor Jesse Alderete supports the worker protection rules and was among those helping to get the word out about the workshops.

But Alderete said the state shouldn't be so quick to shut down a company, even if just for a few days.

"Ignorance is no excuse for not complying with the law," Alderete said. "But why doesn't the state give a warning before they close someone down? The economy is not the best right now, and people need to work so they can get back on their feet."

Monterroza said employers have had several years to become familiar with the rules and can expect punishment for not following the law.

An Atwater-based farm labor contractor was fined $262,000 by state officials in connection with the heat-related death of a 17-year-old farmworker.

The contractor, Merced Farm Labor Contractor, surrendered its operating license three days before a revocation hearing, according to the Department of Industrial Relations.

"If it's 92 degrees out and you have crews picking cherries or tree fruit and there is not water or enough shade, then chances are you are going to be visited by us," Monterroza said.