On Wednesday July 14, California legislators were debating whether the state’s five-year-old heat safety regulations are strong enough to protect the 650,000 farm workers who harvest the bulk of the nation’s fruit and vegetables in temperatures that regularly climb over 100 degrees.
As the legislators ruminated from the safety of their air-conditioned chambers, 54-year-old Rodolfo Ceballos Carrillo was loading boxes of tables grapes onto trucks at Sunview Vineyards in Kern County, Calif., in 97-degree heat. At 4:30 that afternoon, Carrillo collapsed and died. Another California farm worker also died the same day. They are among four farm workers and a construction worker who have perished in apparently heat-related deaths since June. Another worker had died at the same vineyard doing the same job as Carrillo in 2008.
Many see this as the latest proof that the heat-safety law California passed in 2005 has not saved largely immigrant farm workers and construction workers from painful deaths and health problems caused by toiling often without shade, breaks or water in extreme heat. Each year since the law was passed, a handful of workers have died – at least 11 between 2005 and 2009 according to a lawsuit filed last year by the United Farm Workers (UFW).
The state occupational health and safety agency (Cal/OSHA) is currently investigating Carrilla’s death, the June 11 death of a plum picker in Tulare County, the June 29 death of a 33-year-old farm employee in Indio and the death of a 57-year-old farm mechanic in Firebaugh, along with the death of a construction worker in San Bernardino. The agency has said it did 1,340 investigations so far this year and has found 316 heat-related violations.
The state heat safety law, considered the first and most stringent in the nation, mandates employers provide adequate rest, water and shade when temperatures top 85 degrees. They must provide enough shade for a quarter of the workers to sit comfortably at one time; and enough cool clean water for all workers.
But critics say there are not near enough enforcers and fines are not hefty enough to make sure employers comply. There are fewer than 200 occupational health and safety enforcers in California for 17 million state workers, including the 650,000 farm workers spread out over thousands of farms.
And under the law, the onus is still on the workers to ask for breaks and water, an unlikely situation when their documentation and employment status makes them feel vulnerable to retaliation; and when they are often paid piece-meal depending on how much they harvest. Workers quoted on the UFW’s website note these situations:
I would work all day without taking a break or going for water because I was afraid of getting fired.
–Erika Contreras,farm labor contractor worker
They give us the water they use to irrigate the fields.
–Pedro Zapien,vegetable worker
We have to pitch in money to have clean drinking water.
–Juan Martinez Vasquez, pea worker
The foreman drinks the water we bring ourselves.
–Francisco Villasaña,cotton worker
When someone wants to drink water, the boss gets mad.
–Imelda Valdivia,grape worker
One foreman carries a gun on his side to scare the workers.
— Alejandro Gil,cotton worker
Being without water is dangerous. We are not camels that can be working without water.
— Jairo Salin Salosairo Luquez, grape worker
In 2008, the state found that more than a third of the employers it did investigate were violating the heat safety law. Last year, the state logged 137 heat-related violations out of 3,501 inspections.
The United Farm Workers website states:
Cal/OSHA has so few inspectors that it simply cannot protect workers in an industry this large, routinely imposes paltry fines even for serious violations and deaths, fails to collect fines it does impose, and allows enforcement actions to be tied up in appeals processes that often delay penalties for years.
Representatives of the group California Rural Legal Assistance are visiting farms in the state’s San Joaquin Central Valley this summer – more than 20 so far – to monitor compliance with the heat safety law and educate employers and workers about the law.They say employers have received them with hostility.
The union and other critics say employers should be forced to provide specific amounts of rest and water in response to certain temperature thresholds, rather than placing the burden on workers to demand their rights.
After the lawsuit was filed last summer, state occupational health spokesman Dean Fryer told media that California had seen improvements and dealt with heat more responsibly than other states.
Cal/OSHA has done an effective job of preventing heat illnesses and fatalities. In fact there has been a downward overall trend of fatalities since the regulation became effective in 2005. Even the CDC, in a 2008 report, showed California fairing better then other states. Their study revealed that North Carolina had the highest heat related deaths among crop workers with a rate of 2.36 per 100,000 workers. This was followed by Florida’s rate of .74 and California’s rate of .49.
In 2008, NPR reported on the heart-breaking death of a 17-year-old Mexican worker:
Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm east of Stockton on May 14 (2008), when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. The nearest water cooler was a 10-minute walk away, and workers say the strict foreman didn’t allow them a long enough break to stop and get a drink.
Vasquez collapsed from heat exhaustion. Her fiancé, Florentino Bautista, cradled her in his arms. “When she fell, she looked bad,” Bautista says. “She didn’t regain consciousness. She just fell down and didn’t react. I told her to be strong so we could see each other again.”
Bautista, 19, had saved up money to buy a gold ring for Maria Isabel, his childhood sweetheart from their indigenous village in Oaxaca, Mexico.
(Last Wednesday, Steve Franklin blogged for In These Times about the grueling and dangerous daily life of a farm worker.)
As workers face torturous conditions and even death in the fields because of this summer’s intense heat, those crossing the border to get such jobs are also succumbing in near-record numbers.
This month, officials in Pima County, Ariz. have dealt with one to four bodies per day of immigrants who perished crossing the border. As of July 16 the Pima County medical examiner’s office counted 40 bodies this month. The July record from 2005 was 68. So far this year, the medical examiner has logged 134 bodies. That’s compared to 93 by this time last year, and 140 in 2007, the year with the highest number of total deaths.
The economic crisis and escalating costs charged by coyotes in recent years have meant fewer people trying to cross the border, according to various studies. Hence the record-level border deaths likely mean the trek is deadlier than ever thanks to sweltering temperatures and the increasing border security that has driven people into ever harsher and more remote parts of the Arizona desert.
There have in fact been so many deaths of late that a refrigerated truck was rolled out to help handle the bodies overflowing from the Medical Examiner’s office.
In his book “The Devil’s Highway,” author Luis Alberto Urrea describes in excruciating clinical detail what actually happens when one dies of heat. The book is a gut-wrenching journalistic literary account of the deaths of 14 migrants in the Arizona desert over Memorial Day weekend, 2001.
Walkers see demons, see God, see dead relatives and crystal cities. They vomit blood. The only clear thought in your mind now is: I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty…
Based on interviews with survivors, Urrea recreated the death of one specific man:
He went on all fours, and sometimes he went on his knees like a religious penitent. The world of sin and grace spun in flaming disks around his head. He fell. He rose. He lay. He crawled. He tried to rise.
It is indescribably cruel and senseless enough that record numbers of migrants each day are currently dying this way, crossing the desert just to come here to work. And the level of injustice rises even more – if that is possible – when one considers many who have survived that trek are still risking death by heat day in and day out as employers wring – literally – every last drop of profit from their work.
About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.