Munger, Tolles & Olson and the ACLU of Southern California have filed suit against the State of California and the State’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) for failing to properly enforce a 2005 heat illness regulation that requires employers to provide shade, water and rest breaks for farm workers who work for extended periods in sweltering heat. At least eleven farm workers have died from heat illness since the standard was adopted and hundreds more are hospitalized or injured every year. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of five farm workers who have suffered heat illnesses or are relatives of workers who died from heatstroke and the United Farm Workers union, seeks to require the State both to address the problem of widespread non-compliance with the heat safety requirements and to bolster the regulation’s current provisions.
Cal-OSHA and the State have not done enough to protect the safety of farm workers. Lack of enforcement and low monetary penalties provide no incentive for agricultural employers to adhere to the law, while “those few violators who are occasionally identified generally escape with little or no punishment,” Munger Tolles attorney Brad Phillips explained to Time magazine. Creating “the maximum economic incentive” for large growers as well as labor contractors will better ensure worker safety.
Current regulations also do not provide the types of safeguards that have long been put into practice by employers ranging from firefighters to the United States’ military services. Last summer, a pregnant 17-year-old died after collapsing in a vineyard when the temperatures peaked at 95 degrees because the only available water was more than 1,200 feet away from her.
Earlier this year, the State twice acknowledged serious deficiencies with its existing regulation and sought to make emergency revisions to the regulation. Both times, the State’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board refused to adopt any changes to the existing regulation. Even the changes proposed by the State were inadequate. “One of the primary problems with this emergency regulation is that it’s rife with loopholes and exceptions,” Gabriel Sanchez, a Munger Tolles attorney representing farm workers pro bono, told ABC News.