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Farmworkers' lawsuit claims Cal OSHA failed to enforce regulations

Farm workers bring buckets full of red bell peppers to a packing tent

A lawsuit filed Thursday against the California s Division of Occupational Safety and Health on behalf of farmworkers and a union working with them alleges that the agency has failed in its duty to enforce regulations protecting outdoor workers.

Cal OSHA systemically failed to “enforce the regulation that requires farmers to provide water, shade and rest to their employees in order to prevent heat illness or death,” according to a news release from the pro-bono firm Public Counsel, which filed the suit -– Bautista vs. Cal-OSHA -– along with the firm Munger, Tolles & Olson. The union working with them was the United Farmworkers Union.

The plaintiffs accuse Cal OSHA of not conducting on-site inspections for complaints, failing to investigate heat-related injuries and fatalities and failing "to impose and collect meaningful penalties for violation of the Heat Illness Prevention regulation,” among several charges, according to the release.

A representative for Cal OSHA was not immediately available for comment.

The suit comes seven years after California became the first state to adopt rules requiring rest, water and shade for outdoor workers. But there has been only sporadic adherence to the law.

“At least 28 farmworkers have died of potentially heat-related causes since the regulation was first approved in 2005," the Public Counsel release said. "This year alone, Cal OSHA is investigating heat as a factor in the deaths of four people."

Some of the plaintiffs in the suit were related to farmworkers who died of heat-related illnesses.

“It has been four years since my mother passed away, and people are still dying,” Margarita Alvarez Bautista, whose mother died two weeks after collapsing in 2008 while picking grapes in Riverside County, said in the statement.

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Photo: Farmworkers carry buckets full of red bell peppers to a packing tent in Bakersfield in 2011. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times

 
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