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California agency says farmworker suit 'risks draining resources'

October 22, 2012 |  1:33 pm

California's Department of Industrial Relations says a lawsuit filed last week on behalf of farmworkers and the United Farm Workers union "risks draining resources away from ... critical enforcement actions."

The lawsuit alleges California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health has failed in its duty to enforce regulations protecting outdoor workers. The suit comes seven years after California became the first state to adopt rules requiring water, shade and rest for such workers.

The plaintiffs in the case say Cal/OSHA failed in several of its obligations, including not conducting onsite inspections after complaints and failing to investigate heat-related injuries and fatalities.

"Farmworkers in California work in the extreme heat and tough conditions to feed our nation. But farmworkers should never have to risk death due to heat illness," UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said in a news release. "The evidence shows that farmworkers continue to die from heat illness due to employer neglect and that the state of California still fails to enforce the existing heat illness standards."

In a statement, a spokesman for the state department said "protecting farmworkers from heat illness is one of Cal/OSHA's major priorities."

"California's current outdoor heat standards are the most stringent in the nation. Cal/OSHA has conducted over 3,000 heat safety inspections per year for the past three years. We have issued hundreds of citations and penalties for heat-safety-standard violations and compliance has increased in all industries from 32% in 2006 to 76% in 2011," according to the statement from Dean Fryer, deputy director of communications for the Department of Industrial Relations.

"The lawsuit filed ... risks draining resources away from these critical enforcement actions," Fryer said.


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-- Ari Bloomekatz

Photo: Farmworkers labor in a field of chili peppers in the Bakersfield area. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times