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Area farms ahead of heat-stress learning curve

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Posted: Wednesday, August 3, 2005 10:00 pm

Wearing a beanie, long-sleeve shirt and jeans, George Rodriguez says he doesn't pay attention to the heat from the noon sun as he picks and sorts tomatoes on a dusty plot of land on East Kettleman Lane.

"I just don't think about it," said 15-year-old Rodriguez, sifting at a casual pace through a red plastic bucket of Early Girls for Toscano and Sons. "The more you think about it, the hotter it feels."

His boss, Javier Toscano, knows it's hot and allows Rodriguez and three other workers to pick tomatoes, melons and other vegetables at a pace they find comfortable. When it's hot, the workers, who start their eight-hour day at 6 a.m., find respite from the heat under a large umbrella not far away.

A set of emergency regulations designed to protect workers from heat stress is expected to go for a vote Aug. 12 before the state's Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board.

If approved, the regulations would require that Rodriguez and Toscano, as well as any other outdoor laborers, learn how to prevent heat-related illness and know the importance of drinking adequate amounts of water. They would also restate an existing law requiring water to be available at all times and that workers understand the importance of frequently drinking water. The standards board would also have to review the feasibility of providing shade for rest periods.

Cal/OSHA and the United Farm Workers, which is supporting the regulations, say they will help laborers and supervisors who don't know how to prevent and address heat illness.

The regulations were brought forward by state labor safety officials after the deaths of five farm workers since July 2004. Cal/OSHA is waiting for coroner's reports to confirm whether those deaths, which occurred in southern parts of the Central Valley, were related to heat illness, a spokesman said.

But many who work outside say they are already doing what would be mandated by the emergency regulations, which would take effect 10 days after approval and stay in place for 120 days.

"That's nothing new for our company," said Bruce Fry, of winegrape growers Mohr-Fry Ranches.

Fry said his company holds a safety meeting each year before hot weather descends on the Central Valley. At that meeting, employees receive an illustrated pamphlet in English and Spanish on the symptoms and treatment of heat stress.

Fry said employee safety is good for profits.

"The more you cover, the safer your workers are and the less money the grower loses by the employee not being able to work that day," he said.

If the regulations are approved, employers could face hefty fines for violations. Fines would range from $100 for minor infractions to $25,000 for serious violations that could lead to serious physical harm or death, said Cal/OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer. An employer can meet a fine of up to $70,000 for knowingly and willingly violating the regulations, Fryer said.

Some local employers start work earlier to keep employees from working in hot conditions that could affect their health.

Diana Castagna, owner of Lodi Roofing Company, said she likes her five employees to start work on roofs at 7 a.m. or earlier, if residential neighbors don't mind.

Castagna said none of her workers have experienced heat-related illness, which she attributes to workers using common sense.

"I think people need to be aware they're allowed to take a break and get a cold drink," she said.

At Toscano and Sons' farm, workers carry around bottles of water to stay hydrated. Rodriguez said he'll drink more than a gallon each day. Toscano urges workers to freeze their water jugs so the water stays somewhat cold.

Fry said he supplies cups and ice chests filled with water to his workers, who are hired through a labor contractor.

The ways in which workers are paid can make a difference in whether they experience heat-related problems.

Workers who must meet quotas and have little protection from the heat are the most at risk, said Marc Grossman, spokesman for UFW.

"It can be a lethal combination," he said, adding that several of the deaths in the past year were caused during "speed-ups," when laborers must work at a faster pace to meet quotas.

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park, a bill working its way through the state Senate would require the standards board to adopt a standard for heat illness prevention by Dec. 1, 2006. The bill would also make repeat violations a misdemeanor. If approved, the bill wouldn't become law until Jan. 1, 2006.

Fry said it only makes sense -- and cents -- to protect workers.

"They're human beings. They're your employees or the labor contractor's employees, and if you don't have your employees to do your job, you're losing money."

Contact reporter Jake Armstrong at jakea@lodinews.com.

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