Heat safety Cal/OSHA chief plans to focus on enforcement


Issue Date: July 13, 2011
By Christine Souza
Vanessa Jacinto of Merced takes a water break after tying grapevines at a Livingston farm.
Photo/Christine Souza
Farm labor contractor Hall Management Corp. developed trailers that provide clean water, shade, restrooms and a hand-washing facility. The trailers follow crews from field to field.
Photos/Christine Souza
Hall Management Supervisor Augustine Martinez says crew foremen regularly remind employees to take water breaks.
Photos/Christine Souza

With summer temperatures spiking above 100 degrees, and as agricultural employers conduct training sessions to educate employees about the California Heat Illness Prevention Standard, the new head of Cal/OSHA said the agency will conduct "traveling sweeps" through the summer to assure compliance with the standard.

Ellen Widess, chief of Cal/OSHA—formally known as the state Department of Industrial Relations Division of Occupational Safety and Health—said she plans to target employers of outdoor employees who are not complying with the standard. The standard emphasizes that outdoor employees drink water, have access to shade, take breaks and are trained in the signs of heat illness. Employers must have written compliance and emergency-response procedures.

"We're going to be doing traveling sweeps geographically across the state throughout the next three or four months, through September when we expect high heat," Widess said. "We will be looking for heat illness prevention program violations as well as other health and safety problems."

Widess said the agency has already conducted about 100 heat sweeps, mostly in agriculture, but also in construction and landscaping.

"We know that many are complying. We want to find folks who aren't," Widess said. "We're looking for opportunities where we can partner with the ag industry to increase the outreach and training to make sure that everybody is really informed and has good programs to prevent any serious illnesses."

She added that Cal/OSHA has "been working really effectively with many folks in the ag industry—California Farm Bureau, Western Growers, Nisei Farmers League, the California Grape & Tree Fruit League and others—putting on many, many trainings, outreach, education sessions. It is in the several hundreds of programs put on to date this year."

Farm Employers Labor Service Chief Operating Officer Bryan Little, who also serves as California Farm Bureau Federation director of labor affairs, said CFBF and other agricultural organizations have teamed with Cal/OSHA to help train and educate employers and supervisors about how to stay safe when working outdoors in high temperatures.

"We have worked closely and proactively with the agency over the last three years to try to make some significant improvements, which have resulted in employers' compliance with the regulations and protecting workers from heat illness," Little said. "We remind everyone to re-familiarize themselves with the Heat Illness Prevention Standard and also maintain effective communication with employees, to ensure that they are not showing signs of heat illness."

For example, Augustine Martinez, a supervisor for Hall Management Corp. in Kerman, said he conducts weekly safety training sessions and daily heat illness prevention meetings. Last week, Martinez was overseeing crews working in Merced County during high heat.

"We go over and above what is required because we want to make sure that the people are safe and have access to everything they need," Martinez said.

In a Livingston-area vineyard where workers were tying grapevines, Hall Management contracted with a water company to deliver drinking water in 5-gallon bottles to a location near the worksites so that it could be distributed to each crew as needed. This water was used to refill water coolers that travel with the employees as they work. At worksites in other parts of the state, the company orders certified safe drinking water that is stored in large tanks. Hall Management also contracts with an ice company to keep the water cool.

California's heat illness prevention standard—the first in the nation—was strengthened last year to include a high heat provision that must be implemented when temperatures reach 95 degrees. Procedures include observing employees, closely supervising new employees and reminding all employees throughout the shift to drink water.

Each foreman, Martinez said, carries a whistle that he or she blows to remind workers to stay hydrated.

"When the temperature gets to be over 85 degrees, the foremen blow the whistle every 15 minutes to remind workers to drink water. That's one of our main goals, to get everyone to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated and cool," Martinez said.

Another layer of safety, especially during high temperatures, Martinez said, is instructing employees to use the "buddy system" to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat illness.

As for the necessities such as access to water, shade and rest rooms, Hall Management employs a portable shade pulled by a tractor that provides a place for employees to cool off, eat lunch and take breaks. The system closely follows workers and holds two coolers with cold, clean water, as well as portable toilets and a place for hand washing.

For more information on heat illness prevention and training material, visit the Cal/OSHA website at www.dir.ca.gov/heatillness or the "Water. Rest. Shade." campaign site at www.99calor.org.

Cal/OSHA Consultation provides free assistance to employers on heat illness prevention and other safety and health programs, and may be contacted at 800-963-9424.

The Farm Employers Labor Service, a CFBF affiliate, helps subscribing agricultural employers comply with farm labor laws. For information about upcoming heat-illness training sessions and other labor-related information, contact FELS at 800-753-9073, info@fels.net or www.fels.net.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.