Cal/OSHA Settles Long-Running Farm Worker Suit Over Heat Rules, Revises Regs

California’s state OSHA program has settled a long-running dispute with farm workers’ groups over enforcement of the state’s heat standards, just as new regulations become effective aimed at addressing many of the concerns borne out by the protracted litigation.

The 10-year-old California heat illness prevention regulation has been lauded by proponents as an example of Cal/OSHA exceeding federal OSHA standards and enforcement, but has also been subject to criticism from worker rights advocates.

State health officials are billing the lawsuit settlement as boosting enforcement of heat standards for outdoor workers, according to an OSHA news bulletin. Cal/OSHA reached a settlement in two lawsuits, filed in 2009 and 2012, alleging failures to protect farm workers from heat illness and death. Those suits were filed against Cal/OSHA by individual farm workers, United Farm Workers, and UFW Foundation.

“Cal/OSHA and the United Farm Workers recently reached an amicable settlement of the Bautista lawsuit, which includes provisions for us to work cooperatively in addressing heat illness prevention at outdoor worksites throughout the state,” Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum said. “That spirit of cooperation is strengthening and expanding Cal/OSHA’s enforcement and outreach efforts which have been ongoing since the heat illness prevention standard was made permanent in 2006.”

The rules were amended effective May 1. Cal/OSHA says the revisions clarify requirements related to the provision of water, rest and shade protections for all outdoor workers, which are detailed in Cal/OSHA’s guidance on the new requirements. Employer requirements under the heat regulation include: training for all employees and supervisors about heat illness prevention; provision of cool, fresh water as close as practicable to the work area at no cost to workers; shade provided whenever the temperature rises above 80 degrees Fahrenheit; and enough shade to accommodate the number of workers taking a break.

The regulations also require encouragement of employees on cool down rests and monitoring for symptoms of heat illness, as well as acclimatization to ensure that workers, especially new employees, safely adapt to increased temperatures during a heat wave.

Sum said acclimatization is critical to the health of all employees during a heat wave and employees who are newly assigned to high-heat areas. “The workers must be closely observed to ensure that their bodies adjust properly to the heat.”

Special high heat procedures are also required when temperatures reach 95 degrees and workers are at greater risk. Supervisors must take extra precautions at such times: Observing workers for signs and symptoms of heat illness holding pre-shift meetings on safety and reminding workers to drink water frequently; requiring that workers take a cool-down rest every two hours; and ensuring effective communication systems are in place so that emergency assistance can be summoned immediately if necessary.

Cal/OSHA’s renewed focus and the new attention given its heat illness strategy occur as federal OSHA devotes resources to getting similar messages out nationally. — Christopher Cole (ccole@iwpnews.com)