Cal OSHA considers new heat laws

June 18, 2009 6:53:43 PM PDT
The spike in temperature is a reminder that summer is coming and so is the danger for the people who work outdoors every day.

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The number of heat-related deaths for outdoor workers crept up last year, so now Cal OSHA is trying to strengthen what many consider the toughest regulations anywhere in the country. However, some workers believe it is still not enough.

With temperatures rising, the tougher heat regulations for outdoor workers could come just in time. Some say shade, water and restrooms are still not being provided.

After listening to numerous people testify, Cal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is considering emergency guidelines that take effect immediately once approved, including a temperature trigger.

While California has mandated shade and water breaks since 2005, companies and workers have been fighting over when it was hot enough for those requirements to kick in. Anything above 85 degrees would be considered "high heat" conditions.

"There's still non-compliance out there. We are seeing that. And hopefully by providing a little more clarity to the regulations, we can help get some more of those employers to come into compliance," says Dean Fryer from the California Department of Industrial Relations.

Under the blaring sun, oddly enough, United Farm Workers and attorneys for the ACLU blasted the move.

"One of the primary problems with this emergency regulation is that it's rife with loopholes and exceptions," says Gabriel Sanchez, an ACLU attorney.

They give the example of the water requirement. Farmers provide it, but some charge $2 per bottle.

"The supervisor would bring ice chests filled with water and other drinks that he would sell to us," says farm worker Mauricio Alvarez.

Then there's the enforcement issue. The family of Maria Isabel Jimenez joined the fight. She was the pregnant 17-year-old who died last summer after collapsing in a vineyard when the temperatures peaked at 95 degrees.

"If these regulations were actually enforced, Maria Isabel would be with us today," says Doroteo Jimenez, the heat victim's uncle.

Cal OSHA says enforcement has and will continue to be stepped up. The agency has hired more inspectors and has issued nearly $2 million worth in citations last year compared to less than half that in 2007.

The vote could be rescheduled next month.

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