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Better enforcement of farm-worker heat rules as UFW and Brown administration settle lawsuit
06/11/2015

UFW president, workers, attorneys at 1 p.m. on Thursday in Fresno

Better enforcement of farm-worker heat rules as UFW and Brown administration settle lawsuit

More effective, timely and consistent inspections by Cal/OSHA 

               Settlement of two lawsuits, filed in 2009 and 2012, announced Thursday, June 11 in Fresno between the Brown administration’s work-safety agency and farm workers partnering with the United Farm Workers will mean more effective, timely and consistent inspections of farm and other outdoor worksites under California’s recently improved heat-illness-prevention regulations. Announcing changes in how Cal/OSHA protects workers will be family members of those who died from heat exposure who are plaintiffs in Bautista v. State of California plus UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez and attorneys from Public Counsel and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, who provided legal representation in the lawsuits.

               Specific changes that result from the settlement include:

               • Cal/OSHA has revised its policies and procedures with the goal of, among other things, completing inspections more quickly and taking action more effectively against serious, willful and repeat violators of the heat standards.

               • All state inspectors will focus on outdoor workplaces, including agriculture, during periods of high heat when there is the greatest risk to farm and other outdoor workers.

               • The UFW and UFW Foundation will report and refer potential violations of the heat regulations to Cal/OSHA, with clear guidelines on how the agency will respond.

               • Confidential internal audits of Cal/OSHA heat enforcement will help determine whether, among other things, there are timely investigations of complaints, repeat violators are being targeted for more attention, and inspectors are properly reaching out to complainants.

               • Under a pilot project, investigators will take formal declarations from workers in the field during heat inspections to be used in hearings when employers contest complaints months later and migrant and seasonal workers have left the company or the area.

Who:   Family members of farm workers who died from the heat; UFW President Arturo Rodriguez; and attorneys from Los Angeles-based Public Counsel and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, who provided legal representation in the lawsuits.

What:  Announcing improved enforcement of California’s heat-illness-prevention regulations as part of the settlement of two lawsuits filed in 2009 and 2012.

When:   1 p.m., Thursday, June 11, 2015.

Where:  2409 Merced St., Suite 103, Fresno 93721.

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Lawsuit settlement boosts enforcement of

heat standards for farm and other outdoor workers

A settlement has been reached in two lawsuits, filed in 2009 and 2012, alleging failures to protect farm workers from heat illness and death. The lawsuits were filed against Cal/OSHA by individual farm workers, the United Farm Workers, and the UFW Foundation, with legal representation by Public Counsel and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP. The lawsuits were titled Bautista, et al v. State of California, et al. and were pending in the Superior Court for Los Angeles County.

The settlement implements changes to protect farm workers and fulfill the parties’ mutual objective of providing safer agricultural workplaces in California. The following is a summary and explanation of the settlement.

Changes to Cal/OSHA policies and procedures will provide more effective, timely, and consistent inspections of farm and other outdoor worksites to ensure compliance with the State’s recently improved heat-illness-prevention regulations. The Special Emphasis Program on Heat Illness Prevention at Cal/OSHA will implement a more comprehensive approach to preventing heat illnesses and deaths and provide clearer and more uniform direction to field staff. The agency will use these guidelines in more quickly turning around inspections and more effectively taking action against serious, willful, and repeat offenders.

In addition, the state Labor Enforcement Task Force will request and review employers’ Heat Illness Prevention Plans as a regular part of its inspections. Most importantly, during periods of high heat all state inspectors will focus on outdoor workplaces, including agriculture. Cal/OSHA will especially deploy its resources in these periods of high temperatures that present the greatest risks to farm and other outdoor workers.

Procedures will be established so the UFW and UFW Foundation can more easily report and refer potential violations of the heat regulations to Cal/OSHA, with clear guidelines on how the agency will respond. A Memorandum of Understanding between Cal/OSHA and the UFW and UFW Foundation reflect agreed-upon procedures for cooperation between the parties to better seek out violators and improve conditions. To help overcome budgetary constraints and a resulting paucity of state inspectors, the UFW and UFW Foundation will assist in investigations by passing along complaints to Cal/OSHA, which will then respond to such complaints in a uniform and serious manner.

Confidential internal audits of Cal/OSHA’s enforcement of heat standards will aim to, among many other things, determine whether there are timely investigations of complaints, whether the agency is checking if violating employers were previously cited in order to focus more attention on repeat offenders, and whether Cal/OSHA is reaching out to complainants in a language they can understand. Two such audits will be conducted—one in 2016 of the 2015 enforcement year and another in 2017 of the 2016 enforcement year.  The audits will be reviewed by the plaintiffs in the lawsuits and their lawyers to ensure the concerns raised in the lawsuit are being properly addressed by Cal/OSHA and workers are being adequately protected.

It is important to be able to track, report, and publicly share information about penalties assessed against agricultural employers for heat-standard violations. Cal/OSHA recognizes it would be beneficial and is investigating ways to establish such a database to determine, for example, how much each employer owes in fines, the amount by which penalties have been negotiated down, and how much is still left to be paid.

• A first-time pilot project seeks to improve heat-illness prevention enforcement by taking declarations from workers in the field during heat inspections. When employers appear at proceedings to fight complaints of heat standard violations long after they occurred, too often the complainants, who are frequently migrant or seasonal workers, are no longer available because they have left the company or the area. Cal/OSHA will attempt to collect and use in appeal hearings on-the-spot sworn declarations taken of workers by inspectors in the field.