Jun 15, 2022
Commentary: Water, rest and shade are critical amid summer heat

After a few 100-degree days to kick off the season, California agricultural employers should be bracing for a hot summer throughout the state. Barring another record-breaking wildfire year, protecting your employees from heat illness and being ready for compliance with the Cal/OSHA Heat Illness Prevention, or HIP, standard should be top of mind as California farmers ramp up.

Nearly two decades after adoption of the nation’s first heat illness prevention standard for outdoor workers, California farm employers have shown clear understanding of the hazards heat can pose to outdoor employees, particularly agricultural employees, and how to protect them from those hazards. California’s regulation was adopted in 2005 and has been updated periodically as new information on safeguarding employees from heat has come to light. Two other states – Oregon and Washington – have enacted regulations to protect outdoor employees, including agricultural employees, from excessive outdoor heat.

Last fall, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) initiated a process to create a federal heat illness and injury regulation. The agency issued a call for comments on the best general approach to the problem –known in regulatory circles as an “advance notice of proposed rulemaking” – and in May 2022 conducted a public meeting for stakeholders in Washington, DC.

The outlines of the possible regulation federal OSHA seems to be looking at bears a remarkable resemblance to California’s HIP standard. This is perhaps unsurprising given that current assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health is former Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker.

Since state occupational safety and health programs like California’s must make and enforce regulations that are at least as effective as federal rules, federal adoption of a rule similar to California’s would spare California agricultural employers from having to adjust to a new regulation. We already have an effective one in place.

Cal/OSHA indicates that it finds compliance by employers with the substantive provisions of the regulation when the agency undertakes enforcement during agricultural production months. The result has been very few heat illness deaths among agricultural employees in recent years. But there are important things agricultural employers should keep in mind as temperatures rise this summer:

• Be sure shade is available on demand when the temperature is below 80° F

• Shade must be provided at all times when the temperature exceeds 80° F

• Shade must be easy for employees to reach, and placement of shade should not deter access or use.

• Employees must not be required to encounter obstacles or hazards or unreasonably unpleasant conditions to reach or use shade. For example, hanging a tarp on the back of the trailer carrying portable toilets will certainly attract a citation from Cal/OSHA. Be sure to use “easy-up” portable shades, awnings or a distinctly California innovation – the shade trailer.

• Shade must be provided to all employees on rest or meal breaks, except those who choose to take a meal break elsewhere.

• Fresh, pure and suitably cool water must be made available in sufficient quantities. Replenishment through plumbed water supplies or refilling of portable water coolers throughout the day is permissible to ensure that each employee can drink one quart per hour. But the process of replenishing supplies should not result in employees in the field being left without water while coolers are being refilled.

• Water must be provided in the field and made available to employees “as close as practicable” to location of work.

• Employees must be trained about heat illness and the HIP Standard before they work in conditions where they might be exposed to heat.

• Supervisors must be additionally trained in HIP compliance procedures, employee monitoring, emergency responses and ensuring effective communication to facilitate emergency response.

• A written copy of your HIP program in English and the language understood by the majority of the employees must be made available to employees and Cal/OSHA inspectors on request. This is the most frequently cited part of the HIP standard – and probably the most easily avoided HIP citation.

It’s also crucially important to remember that when temperatures exceed 95° F, employers must implement “high heat” procedures. They include a mandatory 10-minute break every two hours. While meal and rest periods can serve as these breaks, you must still ensure the mandatory rest breaks occur if employees work beyond eight hours or waive meal or rest periods.

California Farm Bureau’s affiliated company, Farm Employers Labor Service, or FELS, furnishes training resources including our heat illness training video, tailgate training resources, a water cooler sticker reminding employees to drink water and rest in shade periodically. In addition, heat illness training is available for your employees and supervisors from bilingual, bicultural FELS labor management consultants. You can get more information at fels.net.

– Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation

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