Seeking Protection for Farm Workers

Munger, Tolles & Olson and the nonprofit firm Public Counsel have filed a lawsuit alleging that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) systematically fails to enforce the state’s heat-illness prevention rules, with the result that many California farm workers become seriously ill or die from heat exposure .

The suit was filed on October 18, 2012 in the Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and five individual farm workers who have had family members die or become seriously ill from heat exposure. The lawsuit seeks a writ of mandate and injunction compelling Cal/OSHA to enforce the state’s heat-illness prevention rules. 

The complaint alleges that, in 2011, Cal/OSHA regularly failed to conduct inspections in response to heat complaints, to conduct inspections in a timely manner, to cite for violations and to collect the fines that it imposed. The complaint contains 42 pages of detail regarding Cal/OSHA’s deficient performance, including pictures taken in the fields during the 2011 heat season which show employers sending workers into the fields, where temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, without required heat illness protections such as reasonably accessible and cool drinking water and temporary structures that provide shade.

According to Public Counsel, at least 28 farm workers have likely died from heat-related causes since California’s first-in-the-nation heat illness prevention regulation was approved in 2005 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. That regulation requires employers of outdoor workers to provide water, shade, rest, and training.

The current lawsuit follows a similar case that was filed with respect to Cal/OSHA’s conduct during the 2009 heat season and which remains pending in the Superior Court.

Munger Tolles attorneys Bradley S. Phillips, Stuart N. Senator and Benjamin J. Maro are working on the matter.