A Fontana, California landscape contractor wants to make sure that no one working outdoors ever dies of heat exposure again.
According to a story in the Los Angeles Daily News, Raudel Felix García thought someone was playing a cruel joke on him when he was told a decade ago that his brother Audon had died. The 41-year-old perished two days after starting work loading boxes full of grapes in Delano, Kern County, in 112-degree heat.
Garcia says that his brother’s employer was negligent. In a media teleconference, the contractor said that “I had seen Audon five days before his death (July 9, 2008). He was healthy and ready to start another harvesting season.”
Now, García is among those who are calling for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish the first federal standard that would protect workers, including landscape company employees, from exposure to excessive heat.
“I don’t want any more families to go through the pain that my family went through,” he says.
A petition backed by over 100 labor, public health, environmental justice and environmental advocacy groups along with former occupational regulators and other individual petitioners was submitted to OSHA calling for national protections for workers, both indoor and outdoor, who are at risk from having to perform tasks in extreme heat.
The submission of the petition kicks off a national campaign by the consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen, the United Farm Workers Foundation, Farmworker Justice and others. These groups say they want to raise awareness about the effects of climate change on worker health and safety.
“Preventing heat illness is urgently needed now more than ever,” says Ellen Widess, a former Cal-OSHA chief and a board member of Farmworker Justice. “Given climate change, rising heat, high-heat incidents and expanding areas of California and the nation which experience high heat, we have to do something.”
Representative Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, said she plans to introduce legislation in Congress that would require the development of federal heat protection standards. It would likely require employers to provide workplaces with water, shade and rest breaks, similar to what the state of California already requires, and also direct employers to provide training about risk factors that can lead to heat illness.
The issue gained attention in Southern California after postal carrier Peggy Frank, 63, was found dead in her mail truck on a 117-degree July day in Woodland Hills, the Los Angeles suburb she was working in. Authorities, including OSHA, are probing whether heat was a factor in her death.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers are already obligated to protect employees from any hazardous conditions, including extreme heat.
In 2005, prompted by a series of farmworker deaths, California became the first state to issue comprehensive heat standard protections for workers. The regulations were strengthened a decade later and have likely saved lives, activists and experts say. While there have been some tragic cases of heat-related deaths in the state since then, Chu says it’s probably related to lack of enforcement of those regulations.
“We feel it’s related to whether there are people being sent out to see whether employers are really doing their job and whether they are holding them accountable,” Chu says. She’s hopeful that the new legislation will help.
Widess added that more inspectors are needed to make sure employers are doing right by workers, noting that OSHA is chronically understaffed nationally.