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Fewer and Smaller Heat Fines from Cal-OSHA as Deaths Rise

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Officials suspect five California workers have died from heat related causes---such as heat stroke---since the beginning of the summer.  This comes as regulators are issuing lower fines for employers that violate heat regulations.

Now, farm worker organizers are looking for increased protections.

Three of those deaths occurred in the Central Valley. Two men died in Riverside County. All but one of the men worked on farms, and all but one of the men were middle aged. It's suspected that the deaths are heat related, but that's not yet been proved.

Last summer, only one person died on the job as a result of heat stroke.

"Why are we having these deaths?" Al Rojas with the AFL-CIO asks. "We need to take a good look at re-modifying the heat regulations."

Current regulations require employers to provide reasonable access to portable water, shade, and heat illness training.

Rojas says Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has shown a bias towards farmers and Agri-Business---he cites the Governor's veto of a farm worker overtime bill on Wednesday as evidence.

"We really suspect that the Governor is looser with enforcement so it benefits the [farm] employers," Rojas says.

For example, Rojas says Cal-OSHA is reducing the average fine on employers who violate heat safety regulations. Those regulations began in 2005.

The organizer says Cal-OSHA could impose higher fines on employers who violate heat safety regulations as a way to prevent bad behavior. Records show that after an increase in the total fine amount, Cal-OSHA reduced the average fine in 2009, and is on pace for further reduction in 2010.

Dean Fryer works at Cal-OSHA, and he acknowledges that the agency has changed the way they issue fines.  He says after several large fines were overturned on appeal, Cal-OSHA is being more thorough with their fines.

"We want to present something that appeals board will find it more difficult to reduce or overturn," Fryer says. "Because if an employer appeals them, we've got to go before the appeals court and try to argue this."

A Capital Public Radio analysis of the average fines issued over the past three years show a dramatic drop. In 2008, the average fine totaled $1583.47. In 2009, that average dropped to $895.55, and to $557.61 in 2010.

Meanwhile, other data from Cal-OSHA shows heat regulation compliance during that time also shows a dramatic uptick. In 2008, the compliance rate was 65%.

This year, the compliance rate is 87%.
Fryer says another reason for the fine reductions is the type of violation farm employers are committing. The main infraction, he notes, is that employers are failing to provide written guidelines and policies for employees.  Rojas says if that's the major infraction Cal-OSHA is finding, they need to "look harder."

The Central Valley supplies a quarter of the nation's food, and the average valley temperature in July is about 95 degrees. 
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