Cooling stations designed for farmworkers

SACRAMENTO -- After watching grape harvesters toil in the vineyards on a summer day without shade, Garth Patterson was inspired to get them some relief.

The Napa Valley businessman experimented with several prototypes before finding what he believes is the answer. He created a towable trailer with an aluminum canopy that provides first aid and relief from heat stress, a vehicle he hopes will improve farmworker safety while helping him turn a profit.

Patterson has trademarked his "Cooling Station," which runs on a generator and features high-quality misting fans that can reduce surrounding temperatures by 25 degrees. It seats 12, holds as much as 300 gallons of water and features an emergency shower.

"It has huge potential in farming, construction and emergency services," said Patterson, a former fan distributor. "It allows them to sit in the shade and cool off."

Patterson, 56, said he hopes to fill a need as California officials debate the best rules for protecting laborers from heat illness and death. The stations also could be sold in places such as Florida and Texas, he said.

In May 2008, a pregnant teenager, Maria Vasquez Jimenez, died from heat stroke as she pruned grapevines for more than nine hours in nearly triple-digit heat near Farmington. The death prompted Gov. Schwarzenegger and other state officials to call for stronger farmworker protections, but the effort since then has been uneven.

Last year, inspectors found dozens of laborers toiling in the fields with little or no shade or water during a heat wave. Eight farm labor contractors were shut down for violating heat-illness prevention rules.

Yet last summer, the state Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board twice rejected emergency rules designed to prevent heat stress. Farmworker advocates wanted shade structures erected when temperatures reach 75 degrees, while farm owners wanted the regulation to kick in at 85 degrees. Construction firms also voiced concerns about how they might be affected by the new rules.

The state safety board is putting the proposal through a full hearing.

Heat has proven deadly

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the state on behalf of the United Farm Workers and five plaintiffs, most of whom have suffered heat illness or have had relatives die.

Since 2005, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has confirmed 12 cases of farmworkers dying from heat-related stress.

Patterson's invention could be great news for those who work in California's fields, said Maria Machuca, spokeswoman for the United Farm Workers of America. She said the union will watch to see whether state regulators show similar enthusiasm.

Machuca said the state has not been able to enforce existing laws that are intended to ensure farmworkers get access to shade and cool water.

CalOSHA would be glad to conduct an assessment of Patterson's trailer if he contacts the agency, spokeswoman Erika Monterroza said.

Patterson characterizes his trailer as an "asset protection tool" for businesses whose employees labor in the sun because the penalties for failing to properly care for workers can far outweigh the Cooling Station's $20,000 price tag. He also is making sales pitches to home builders, emergency first responders and movie-production crews.

Early models of the Cooling Station consisted of chairs, a collapsible table and water jugs. When an engineering firm built the third prototype, it was deemed too expensive.

Patterson finally settled on Zeiman Manufacturing in Rialto, east of Los Angeles, to make the current model.

The Cooling Station was named as one of the top 10 products of 2010 by World Ag Expo in Tulare County for its potential to advance agricultural production. Judges included farmers, ranchers and agribusiness professionals. It will be featured at the Feb. 9-11 expo, which attracts about 100,000 visitors each year.

Last summer, Patterson's invention was a finalist at the University of California at Davis' Western Agricultural Health and Safety Conference for "outstanding achievement in farm safety."

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