Gustavo Solis , The Desert Sun3:40 p.m. PDT October 27, 2016
Because there are no state regulations requiring growers to provide adequate lighting for farmworkers picking crops at night, the workers have developed their own system.
Each farmworker buys a headlamp with two different colored lights – one red and one white. They use the white light while picking crops and the red light while taking a break.
Workers sleep on the field during their breaks, so the red light tells drivers not to run them over. The red light also has an added benefit.
“Mosquitos don’t like the red light,” said Roberto Ramirez, a 49-year-old farmworker.
Ramirez works at night in a spinach farm south of Thermal. The spinach grows under long tents that protect them from the sun. The inside of those tents is not illuminated and last year Ramirez bumped his head on a metal pole that keeps a tent up.
The hit to his head injured his neck. To this day, nerves damaged in the injury send pain along the outside of his leg down to his foot.
“Sometimes I can’t go to work because of the pain,” he said. “And when I can’t go to work my wife can’t go to work because I am the only one who can drive.”
Between 2011 and 2014 (the most recent available data) more than 1,500 farmworkers in California suffered nonfatal injuries while working between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of nonfatal injuries in the state account for nearly half of all farmworker night-time injuries throughout the country.
Statistics show the number of nonfatal farmworker night injuries around the country have declined between 2011 and 2014, but in California, the number has remained somewhat steady. Now, night injuries in California make up a larger percentage of the country’s overall farmworker night injuries.
Lack of adequate lighting standards leave farmworkers vulnerable to tripping on uneven ground, get bitten by spiders, snakes or other wild animals, being run over by machinery or falling into irrigation ditches, according to the California Rural Legal Assistance, a law firm that represents farmworkers all over the state.
“In the absence of an illumination standard, we have observed a wide range of illumination practices,” CRLA head said in a letter to state regulators. “In some fields, headlights from passenger vehicles are the only light provided. In other fields, lighting illuminates the plants well at the level where the crop is harvested but leaves the ground dark so workers stumble on rocks and holes.”
State regulators are trying to do something about the injury risks.
Since 2013, the state has been trying to come up with a set of mandatory lighting requirements for growers. After years of hearings and research, the Occupational Safety & Standards Board, an independent body made up of seven people appointed by the governor, is almost done drafting regulations. Once they finish, the Standards Board will send their documents to the Department of Industrial Relations for an approval. If DIR approved, the Office of Administrative Law will publish the regulations.
Currently, regulators are trying to determine the cost to employers. Public hearings on the proposed regulations can happen as early as November or December, a DIR spokeswoman said.
Night farming has become increasingly popular in California, especially with crops like blueberries, corn, grapes, lettuce, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries. The appeal of night farming is that it decreases the risks of heat-related illness and harvesting cooler crops makes it easier for them to be processed.
But while working at night reduces heat-related injuries, the practice introduces different types of safety risks.
As part of the regulation drafting process, Eric Berg, deputy chief of Research and Standards for the Department of Industrial Relations, was asked to study serious injuries and deaths of farmworkers between 2003 and 2011. He found that most injuries involved being run over by vehicles or falling off machinery.
Comprehensive statistics on the number of injuries and fatalities that happen at night are difficult to track down.
State and federal databases do not track injuries by time and reports usually do not specify the exact time of incident.
Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics does break down numbers in separate 4-hour time frames, but 23 percent of their reports from 2014 did not include a time.
State regulators used the construction industry as an example of how to introduce lighting requirements for nighttime work, Berg said.
Proposed regulations call for brighter lighting requirements on or near machines and dimmer lighting in rest areas and pathways leading to restrooms or storage units. The general rule of thumb is the higher the hazard the higher the light, Berg added.
Employers would also have to give each worker a high-visibility vest.
The regulations, should they be approved, will help both growers and workers, said Blaz Gutierrez, a staff attorney for CRLA. Growers who want to install lights for their night crews don’t have a uniform standard to use. Workers will have a minimum set of protections while working at night.
“If the growers want, they can do more than is required, but it’s important to have minimums,” Gutierrez said. “The goal is to prevent any injuries. We are talking about one of the most dangerous industries and we are talking about doing your work under the cover at night.”