Friday, November 20, 2015
Palm Springs Desert Sun
Death in The Fields
CALIFORNIA FARMWORKERS SUFFER MORE HEAT DEATHS AND ILLNESSES THAN ANY OTHER WORKERS IN OUTDOOR INDUSTRIES
By Mauricio Peña
Jaime Nuño-Sanchez joked with the crew as they waited to pick lemons at a citrus grove in Southern California’s sunshine-draped Coachella Valley.
It was his first day back from a summer break — his first after 30 years of picking fruits and vegetables in the valley. In fields stretching for 200 miles to the Mexican border, thousands of farmworkers gather to pick or plant half a billion dollars worth of crops — lemons, table grapes, peppers, dates, oranges, onions.
The owners of the Thermal lemon grove where Nuño-Sanchez was headed sell crops to Wonderful Citrus, one of the largest citrus distributors in the United States.
Around 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 21, a crew that included Nuño-Sanchez and his wife began picking from a row of trees at the back of the grove, not far from where a supervisor had set up shade and water to comply with California’s heat illness prevention standards.
Temperatures hovered around 90 degrees, but the humidity made it feel like 105.
Forty-five minutes into the shift, Nuño-Sanchez, 48, sat down in a shaded area, saying he didn’t feel well. Supervisors asked if he wanted to go to Centro Medico Oasis, a nearby clinic, but he declined and said he was fine. He asked for water.
Minutes later, he collapsed.
One picker, who could speak English, called 911. A supervisor jumped into a pickup and sped to Highway 86 to wait for a fire truck and paramedics. When they arrived, he led them to the last lemon tree in the grove, tucked away off a dirt road near Avenue 78 and Fillmore Street.
Paramedics tried to revive Nuño-Sanchez, but it was too late.
The father of three died on the field at 12:35 p.m.
On some of the richest farmland in America, the hardest labor is performed in searing heat.
Most every year, farmworkers die in 90 or 100 degree heat but are never counted as heat-related fatalities by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA).
While the agency investigated 55 agriculture deaths between 2008 and 2014, it categorized six as heat related, according to data obtained by The Desert Sun. Of the 209 farmworker illnesses investigated in the same period, Cal/OSHA confirmed 97 as heat related.
Farmworker fatalities peaked at 15 in 2014. However, Cal/OSHA found that none of those fatalities were heat related. At least 13 of those farmworkers did not belong to a union, including a man who died in 109-degree heat after picking lemons Sept. 2 in a Mecca field.
In the same year, 31 of the 45 agricultural illnesses investigated were deemed not heat related, including a worker in Tulare who got sick and was hospitalized for several hours in June after complaining of body pain, nausea and weakness. A doctor for Cal/OSHA noted: “I am not able to conclude from the available records that the episode of illness suffered by this employee was caused or likely exacerbated by a heat-related illness, or other work-related condition.”
Similar medical explanations abound for both dead and ill farmworkers.
Although California passed the groundbreaking Heat Illness Prevention act in 2005, Cal/OSHA confirms only 13 farmworkers have died in the decade since then from heat-related deaths. The confirmed deaths represent just a fraction of the total, according to the United Farm Workers union’s recently settled lawsuit, which pegs the number of deaths due to heat in just the six years from 2005-2011 at more than double the 10-year number claimed by Cal/OSHA.
Riverside County’s coroner attributed Nuño-Sanchez’s death to cardiovascular disease, but co-workers said he vomited and had a headache — signs of heat exhaustion — before collapsing. His death underscores persistent safety hazards for farmworkers laboring in high heat. But his death likely won’t be recorded as heat-related by Cal/OSHA, which relies on county coroners and its own doctors to decide whether heat is a contributing factor.
This gap in reporting has led to questions about whether Cal/OSHA’s statistics provide a complete picture of the dangers of working under the California sun.
To understand the risks to farmworkers — and to evaluate the effectiveness of California’s worker safety laws — The Desert Sun spent three months analyzing data and documents obtained through the state’s public records act. The reporting team interviewed dozens of farm laborers, advocates, experts and state officials, in Spanish and English.
The team’s investigation yielded little or no evidence that rates of illness have changed significantly, despite a decade of intervention. Farmworkers topped the list for heat illnesses among outdoor workers since 2007, state records show.
Even the 13 deaths Cal/OSHA counts as heat-related since 2005 surpasses the number of such fatalities in all other industries with outdoor workers, according to state numbers reviewed by The Desert Sun.
Construction and agriculture worker fatalities due to heat
Under 2005’s Heat Illness Prevention regulation, the first of its kind in the nation, growers and contractors were required to provide water, shade and rest breaks to workers feeling the onset of heat stress. In addition, supervisors were required to receive training and then instruct workers on how to recognize signs of heat illness.
But, a decade later, illnesses among field laborers have not significantly declined.
Cal/OSHA says new regulations enacted in May should reduce the number of heat-related incidents. Advocates for farmworkers’ health and safety rights are hopeful these changes will be effective, but say it’s too early to evaluate outcomes.
“Heat illness can develop quickly and requires constant vigilance to prevent,” said Peter Melton, a Department of Industrial Relation spokesman. “The new requirements serve to further protect workers from heat illness.”
So far in 2015, the agency is investigating four deaths and 18 illnesses among farmworkers, according to state data, which it suspects could be heat related.
Anne Katten, director of the Pesticide and Worker Safety Project at California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said the state’s classification of heat deaths is “too narrow.”
In two lawsuits filed against Cal/OSHA in 2009 and 2012, the agency is accused of systematically failing to enforce the heat standards. The United Farm Workers put the number of possible heat-related deaths from 2005 to 2011 among farmworkers at 28.
“If you look at (heat) fatalities they have gone down since 2005,” Katten said. “But I don’t think that total is capturing everything because it’s not capturing cases where heat is a contributing factor to someone’s death.”
The final confirmed heat deaths “only include fatalities when heat was the main reason; they should also include when a person has a heart attack while working in the field in extreme heat. It’s an issue we’ve raised several times (with the agency),” Katten said.
Marc Schenker is the principal investigator for the California Heat Illness Prevention Study, which examines the physiological responses to heat and physical labor among farmworkers.
“You have to recognize that this a very vulnerable population,” said Schenker, a public health professor at University of California, Davis. But “one needs to be aware that the solutions are not simple.”
News of Nuño-Sanchez’s death rippled through the farmworker communities of Mecca, Thermal, Oasis and Coachella.
Emilio, a 57-year-old laborer from Oaxaca, Mexico, heard about it from a roommate who worked at the lemon grove where Nuño-Sanchez’s crew was working that day.
Supervisors “stopped them early because they didn’t want anything else to happen,” he said in Spanish.
Since the age of 13, Emilio has harvested California grapes, lemons, grapefruit and lettuce. He isn’t as resilient as he once was. Work from “5 a.m. until 7 or 8 p.m. wears on the body.”
“My body can’t do the things like before,” he said. “I can’t hunch over for eight to 10 hours anymore.”
Emilio’s four children are grown and working in Kansas.
These days, Emilio opts for upright picking, which is easier on his back. But even then, working in lemon groves isn’t without thorns.
In California, farmworkers are entitled to overtime after working 10 hours in a day. Most other workers in the state qualify for overtime after 8 hours.
After 44 years of picking in Hemet, Santa Barbara, Ventura and the Coachella Valley, mostly for minimum wage and often six days a week, Emilio is slowing down.
Nuño-Sanchez’s death is a cause for concern.
“It’s difficult work with little pay,” said Emilio, who earns $9 an hour these days. Rule changes now require employers to provide free water and plentiful shade, but some foremen pressure workers to pick through breaks in high heat in order to meet quotas, he said.
While a contractor was supervising Nuño-Sanchez before he died, Wonderful Citrus spokesman Steven Clark said the company offers programs to make sure all its farm partners are complying with the state’s heat illness prevention standards.
2014 agriculture fatalities not confirmed as heat caused
In 2014, Cal/OSHA, investigated at least 14 deaths in the agriculture industry but official records say no farmworker died of heat-related illness that year, according to a document obtained by The Desert Sun. Thirteen of those 14 farmworkers who died did not belong to a union, including a man picking lemons Sept. 2 in a Mecca field in 109-degree heat. The union status of the 14th is unclear. Temperatures, where available, were provided by the National Weather Service.
Calls made by The Desert Sun to 10 other farms in Riverside County were either not returned or supervisors declined to discuss on the record efforts by farm owners to protect workers.
California Farm Bureau Federation officials said agricultural employers have made strides to ensure worker safety.
“One death is one too many,” said Bryan Little, the federation’s employment policy director. “I know a lot of people are working really hard to make sure we don’t have any (deaths) going forward, and we minimize the number of illnesses going forward.
“We’ve had no (confirmed) heat-related fatalities in the last couple of years,” Little said. “To me that’s an indication that agricultural employers have stepped up to the plate to make sure workers have water and shade.”
But that doesn’t mean farmworker deaths have declined. Fifteen farmworkers died in the fields in 2014, according to state data obtained by The Desert Sun. None of those deaths, after review by Cal/OSHA, were classified as heat related.
At least three of those 15 deaths occurred in temperatures between 80 and 95 degrees, when the state’s heat regulations require employers to provide shade, in addition to other safety measures always in effect. Three of these deaths were when the mercury soared above 95, requiring farm owners to follow extreme heat procedures, including observing employees for signs of heat illness.
Amy Martin, chief counsel for Cal/OSHA, said ambient temperatures are not the sole consideration when conducting investigations and making determinations for heat illnesses or heat fatalities.
“Our medical units look at temperature, conditions, type of work as well as medical reports,” she said. The agency, which employs medical professionals, also takes into account core body temperature at the time of death.
Cal/OSHA has at times disagreed with coroner rulings and has ultimately ruled those cases to be heat related, she said. But she could not provide examples or the exact number of times that has occurred.
The agency says cases ruled heat related must meet high standards of proof so Cal/OSHA is able to defend, with medical evidence, citations issued to employers that the death, was in fact, heat related, Martin said.
“Over the last year, we’ve made changes by strengthening the regulation and strengthening enforcement,” Martin said. “We’ve been working with laborers and employers to educate them on the more stringent standards.”
Emilio still worries that when it comes to farmworkers like him, protections lag far behind.
On a recent afternoon, he bent over and hammered the bottom of his boots. The tread had loosened. He was standing in the driveway of a home in Mecca he shares with other workers. He put his hammer down and walked to a wooden gate to talk.
“Sometimes farmworkers are scared to say anything,” he said. “Or don’t have the courage to say anything because they’re afraid of not having a job the next morning.”
Heat illnesses largely unchanged
Since 2007, 102 heat illnesses have been reported among agricultural workers, averaging about 12 laborers sickened a year. Construction workers are the second most at risk, with 62 confirmed heat-caused illnesses, an average of roughly seven per year, according to state data.
Department of Industrial Relations spokeswoman Erica Monterroza said efforts by Cal/OSHA to work with advocacy groups is having a positive impact. Monterroza said the agency has conducted more inspections and has seen an increase in the number of cases reported to the agency.
“We do take this seriously,” Monterroza said. “This will continue to be of importance to Cal/OSHA and we will continue to remind employers of their responsibility and we continue to educate workers on their rights.”
In May, an amendment to the 2005 Heat Illness Prevention Regulation standards took effect. The changes came following discussions and lawsuits prompted by a spate of heat deaths in 2008 and 2009. The updates included:
Even with new protections, farmworkers fear speaking up about violations, said Suguet Lopez, executive director of Lideres Campesinas, a grassroots farmworkers’ rights group headquartered in Oxnard.
“They don’t want to cause any trouble for the grower. They appreciate their job,” Lopez said. “They want to make sure they have this source of income, but they also want to make sure they have the (amenities) they need to do the work.”
A lack of access to proper healthcare adds to the undercount, Lopez said.
“Those who do experience heat illness while they’re in the workplace are sometimes sent home by supervisors, who tell them to come back the next day,” she said.
External factors, such as poverty, substandard housing, poor nutrition and high rates of diabetes, also place farmworkers at a higher risk of injury.
“There is no silver bullet,” said Schenker of UC-Davis. “There’s not one thing that will solve this whole problem.”
Giev Kashkooli, the UFW’s political legislative director, puts the onus on the farms.
“The issue has been negligence among employers,” he said. “There are some things inherent in agriculture that are dangerous, but we should not be seeing these number of (heat) fatalities and illnesses, not when we are able to figure out how to keep a grape cool from the Coachella Valley … to Topeka, Kansas.”
The tipping point
The incident that forced California to confront the danger of heat in the fields occurred on July 28, 2004.
As temperatures crept above 100 degrees, Asuncion Valdivia, 54, collapsed while picking grapes at a vineyard in Kern County. When supervisors called 911, they were unable to provide directions to emergency crews. Valdivia’s son Luis, who was working in the same crew, was told by supervisors to take his father to the hospital.
“It was a terribly traumatic incident,” said Kashkooli. “Asuncion had got into the car, and as they were driving, he collapsed again and died before he even made it to the hospital.”
Days later, Valdivia’s son and wife met with UFW officials and called for rules that would mitigate the hazards of working in conditions exposed to the California sun. Efforts to reach the family for this report were unsuccessful.
“They knew nothing could bring their father and husband back but they wanted to help make sure this didn’t happen to anyone else again,” Kashkooli said.
Following the meeting with Valdivia’s family, the UFW led an effort that gained the support of U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, then a California assemblywoman representing Monterey Park. Chu introduced legislation that became 2005’s Heat Illness Prevention act.
“Valdivia’s death was the tipping point,” Chu said. “There had been others who had died of heat-related illnesses but Mr. Valdivia’s situation was so poignant, that’s why I had to carry the bill.”
In July 2005, Chu joined elected officials, UFW members and farmworkers for a rally in the middle of a field in Delano in the Central Valley. With temperatures edging above 100 degrees, they called on then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to act.
Within a week, Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law.
Increased complaints, inspections
Jesus Garcia Gudino, 66, said he’s seen a change for the better. While he followed the grape harvest up from Mecca to Bakersfield this year, Gudino said workers were sent home if temperatures passed 100 degrees.
“As soon as it hits 101, you would hear the supervisors telling the foreman on the walkie-talkies ‘No more work for the day; it’s too hot,’” said Gudino, who has been tilling farms in the Coachella Valley and Bakersfield for more than three decades. “And they’re behind you reminding you to drink water.”
But, even with the new amendments to the groundbreaking 2005 worker safety law, advocates contend Cal/OSHA lacks the needed number of inspectors.
“The regulations have improved, and are improving with every amendment,” said Nicole Marquez, an attorney at Worksafe, a legal service and watchdog organization based in San Francisco that supports immigrant workers. “But Cal/OSHA lacks resources to effectively enforce the regulations.”
There are 264 inspectors assigned to conduct enforcement duties across all industries, according to numbers Cal/OSHA provided to The Desert Sun. The agency shows an increasing number of inspections and complaints filed to the state.
In 2010 and 2011, 75 percent of all outdoor work sites, including farms, were in compliance with the 2005 law. After peaking in those two years, compliance fell to 70 percent in 2013, the last year for which complete data is available.
“There are definitely some bad actors” who fail to comply, said Monterroza of the Department of Industrial Relations. But her office, she said, has put extensive effort into educating workers of their rights and employers of their responsibilities.
“There’s going to be cases where there will be confirmed heat-related illnesses and it turns out there’s no heat-related violations at the work site,” Monterroza said. “There will also be cases where there are multiple violations of heat illness prevention standards at a work site and there’s no heat-related illnesses or fatalities.
“The important thing is that we will continue to enforce in the ways we’ve had before. We will continue to respond to complaints of heat illness very quickly, we take those very seriously.”
Leaving the fields
At 20 years of age, Roberto Mendez swapped Michoacán, Mexico’s comfortable climate for the blistering desert of the Coachella Valley. His first job in the U.S. was picking table grapes. Mendez arrived in Mecca in the late 1980s.
“It was a drastic change,” said Mendez, now 47. “You’re used to moderate weather and you come to a place where it reaches 122 degrees. At first, it’s hard and it feels like you can’t adjust.”
Mendez worked up to 10 hours a day, six days a week to earn enough money for clothes, food and rent.
“You come to try to finish ahead with the opportunities that the country offers you,” he said. “But the reality is when you’re hungry, you sometimes have to work 10 hours in the fields.”
One day in July 2007, while picking grapes in triple digits, Mendez started to feel dizzy and nauseous. He told his foreman and supervisor he wasn’t feeling well.
“The supervisor said I was being a fool and that it wasn’t true. I went to sit in the shade but it wasn’t helping, I felt bad,” Mendez said. “I didn’t get the help that I needed from the supervisor…the forewoman didn’t even get near me to check how I was doing.”
He left before the end of his shift. On his way home, he vomited.
“In those seconds, you think it’s the end, you don’t think the same as a normal person; it’s not you, you’re suffering a heat stroke. At that point you need the help.”
After a short time at home, Mendez went to a clinic in Coachella and then to a doctor across the border in Mexicali. The doctor told him that tests showed his liver was inflamed and cautioned him to cut back on his hours working outside.
When Mendez told his boss, a farm labor contractor, he was rebuffed.
“He said I didn’t get sick on the field that day,” he said, “and that it was not from the heat.”
Mendez was fired and never returned to farming.
“In my opinion it’s inhuman to be working in these conditions, because you’re risking your life to put food on the table,” said Mendez. Today, he is a maintenance worker at St. Anthony Mobile Home Park in Mecca.
Although the laws are better, Mendez said more enforcement is needed to target growers and contractors who fail to comply with the standards.
“People are scared to say anything,” Mendez said. “They come and tell me: ‘You speak, you can talk for us.’ I say I can talk but I need other people to support what I’m saying. It’s 2015, and we are still in the same place.”