Worker heat reform falters

Cal-OSHA board rejects changes to rules for shade

06/19/2009 12:55 AM

06/19/2009 12:56 AM

SACRAMENTO — Cal-OSHA's standards board refused Thursday to adopt emergency amendments to heat-stress regulations after listening to complaints that some of the changes would be a setback for outdoor worker safety.

The California Farm Bureau supported the changes proposed by California Division of Occupational Safety and Health field safety chiefs. But labor and health advocates spoke out against some key amendments at the board's meeting in Oakland and at a news conference at the state Capitol.

They especially opposed new language they said would offer employers a "loophole" for getting out of the state's shade requirements for outdoor workers.

The amendments were going to allow grapevines in vineyards to be used as suitable shade for rest breaks during high heat. The changes would have allowed shade to be as far from a work site as a five-minute walk, and for supervisors to not have to provide shade if they could prove it wasn't "feasible."

At the Capitol, the uncle of a teenage vineyard worker who died last year of heat stroke said he was surprised that Cal-OSHA would rewrite regulations to allow vines to be used as shade.

"For those who propose this rule, I invite them to come sit under the vines with me to see what it feels like when it's over 85 degrees," said Doroteo Jimenez, a Lodi farmworker.

Jimenez said that after Gov. Schwarzenegger attended the funeral last year of his niece Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, he noticed more vigorous enforcement of safety laws in the fields.

Maria, 17, who was two months pregnant, died last year after working in a vineyard near Farmington for nine hours in high temperatures with little water and no shade.

This April, Cal-OSHA said it was "clarifying" regulations to require that shade such as a pop-up canopy had to be ready whenever heat was forecast to rise above 85 degrees.

The California Farm Bureau has been trying to seek clarification on regulations to "avoid confusion," said spokesman Dave Kranz.

He said he didn't know the bureau's specific position on using vines as shade, but said the bureau generally supported Cal-OSHA's changes.

California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation industrial hygienist Anne Katten testified against allowing vines as shade. She said the air under vines is hot, and that workers shouldn't be forced to squat under them to take extra breaks they are allowed to request during high heat.

Katten endorsed the Cal-OSHA proposal for requiring a "buddy system" and a voice or cell phone communications network for workers laboring in heat.

The standards board members said they wanted Cal-OSHA to address conflict over the agency's shade requirements before considering changing regulations.

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