In the summer of 2005, a terrible three-week heat wave swept through the West, driving temperatures to scorching triple-digit levels.
Four farmworkers working the fields of central California died.
The state quickly put emergency orders in place that evolved into the first workplace heat standard in the nation: Employers would have to give employees water, rest and shade as they toiled in high temperatures. Until then, there were no rules when it came to hot weather and the workplace.
Since then, California has seen hotter average temperatures in 12 of the past 16 years. Even as the climate emergency has grown more acute, the state’s once-groundbreaking heat-safety rules have not kept pace.
Public health experts and federal workplace regulators consider heat-related illness and death to be 100% preventable, they say. But California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health — Cal/OSHA, the agency that enforces the heat standard — has been chronically underfunded and understaffed. The result, according to dozens of interviews, a review of government records and an analysis of worker heat death cases: Farmworkers, firefighters, construction workers and others required to work in hot environments continue to die.
The state’s failure to adequately invest in Cal/OSHA has undercut the agency’s ability to crack down on companies that violate the heat standard. Its most recent budget request admitted as much, describing enforcement as “minimal to non-existent due to the lack of occupational health inspectors.” Rising temperatures caused by climate change have compounded the problem.
Some say the standard is already obsolete.
It’s a startling point of view considering California’s heat standard is held up as a model. Its water, rest and shade measures are considered both stringent and eminently achievable by former and current officials at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Workers’ rights advocates and OSHA officials have decried the lack of a similar standard to protect workers nationwide.
Absent that safeguard, workers of color across the country have borne the brunt of dangerous heat in the U.S., an investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations, NPR, KPCC and The California Newsroom has found.
Cal/OSHA declined multiple requests for on-the-record interviews for this story. In response to 39 written questions from CJI and The California Newsroom, the agency stressed the need for businesses to do their part to help stem the problem.
“We believe that virtually all heat-related deaths and illnesses can be prevented,” Frank Polizzi, a Cal/OSHA spokesperson, wrote in the Aug. 13, 2021 response. “Periods of high heat are part of our new reality worldwide, and definitely in California.”
Where Things Stand
Over the past 10 years — during a period when state regulators lowered temperature limits that trigger workplace protections from 85 to 80 degrees — nearly four dozen California workers died from heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses. The deaths occurred across the state but were concentrated in the lower Central Valley, in and around Bakersfield, according to an analysis of federal data on worker heat deaths by CJI and NPR.
Experts say the official death count doesn’t begin to reflect heat’s toll on workers. California, unlike other states, doesn’t record the number of serious worker injuries involving overnight hospital stays due to heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses. That makes it difficult to understand heat’s full impact on the state’s workforce.
Jisung Park, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, studies the effects of rising temperatures on the labor force. Using a computer model of temperature increases over 20 years and workers’ compensation claims, he estimates heat likely sickens, or contributes to injuries among, at least 15,000 California workers each year.
Park attributes the gap in part to misclassified injuries. Heat, for example, can cause a construction worker standing on a ladder to fall and get hurt, but the injury likely won’t be categorized as heat-related. Heat illnesses also occur at lower temperatures than expected; Park has found that workers experienced heat exhaustion and similar conditions on days when the temperature was as low as 75 degrees.
Cal/OSHA said in its written response that the data the agency collects is not comparable to Park’s analysis. Insiders within the agency acknowledge the limitations of official data, however, and endorse Park’s analysis. The agency also defended its record and said inspectors investigate every heat complaint reported by workers and advocates. In 2019, for instance, Cal/OSHA conducted more than 4,000 heat-related inspections and cited employers in 47% of them. Heat inspections, citations and fines have increased almost every year since the standard has been in effect, except for 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic affected such activities across the board.
Still, Cal/OSHA insiders say that accelerating temperatures across the state — especially in the thousands of miles of valleys, where temperatures now exceed 100 degrees more than a dozen times a year — have made the 16-year-old standard outdated.
Extreme heat costs lives. CJI and NPR reporters analyzed 267 worker heat deaths recorded by the U.S. Department of Labor between 2010 and 2020 and compared the high temperature on the date of each incident to historic averages over 40 years. More than 66% of these deaths occurred when temperatures reached at least 90 degrees. In California — one of two states where at least 40 workers died — almost half of all deaths happened on days that were unusually hot.
“What we’ve seen over the last few years, certainly since I was chief of OSHA, is catastrophic warming of the earth,” said Ellen Widess, who led Cal/OSHA from 2011 to 2013. “The hundreds of thousands of farmworkers we depend on are extremely vulnerable, exploitable, dependent on these jobs, even in high heat.”
The Current Standards
While water always needs to be available, once the thermometer reads 80 degrees, California’s heat standard kicks in. Employers are required to provide shade to their workers. Companies must ease workers into a job to enable them to adapt to hot temperatures, a practice known as acclimatization.
At 95 degrees, employers must offer additional safeguards: a 10-minute break every two hours, a team meeting to remind workers of the signs of heat illness, and the designation of an employee to call emergency services in the event of a heat incident.
Is it enough?
Widess, who says she was forced out at Cal/OSHA during Jerry Brown’s third term as governor, said the state’s standard has “certainly improved” over the years but “remains inadequate.”
There’s also the issue of enforcement. The United Farmworkers has twice sued Cal/OSHA for what the labor group claimed was a systemic failure to enforce the rule. After a six-year legal battle, in 2015 the agency agreed to:
- Commission enforcement audits
- Create a system to monitor heat-related worker complaints
- Set up a UFW-affiliated hotline so workers could report employers who flouted the standard.
- Increase inspections and crack down on repeat offenders.
In the five years since Cal/OSHA tightened its standard, agency data shows it issued thousands of citations. Most involved employers that didn’t offer heat training or prepare written heat-stress plans.
The audit reports, obtained by CJI and The California Newsroom, show that Cal/OSHA often failed to interview eyewitnesses about heat complaints if an inspector couldn’t find an obvious violation. At times, job sites named in complaints were dismantled and moved before an OSHA inspector ever reached them.
The agency has fewer than 200 inspectors in total to police a state with 18 million workers. According to Cal/OSHA, it has only 35 employees working in enforcement who speak Spanish.
Garrett Brown, a former Cal/OSHA inspector who also served as a special assistant to Widess, has tracked the agency’s staff vacancies for years. As of July 31, at least 25% of its about 250 inspector positions remained open. About 33% of posts in its legal division were unfilled as of June, according to an analysis published on Brown’s website, Inside Cal/OSHA. With such high turnover, Brown said, the agency’s inspectors simply can’t keep up with complaints. Were Cal/OSHA inspectors to visit every farm in the state annually, they’d be outmatched, for example, by the sheer number of farms in the state: there are more than 350 for each inspector.
Cal/OSHA said it is hiring inspectors as “quickly as possible,” noting the 70 inspector positions it has filled since January 2020. Twenty-three of those posts involved internal promotions, resulting in additional vacancies. The agency denied it has experienced any hiring delays and said the candidate pool for workplace safety inspectors “is smaller than for other state classifications.”
Cal/OSHA lawyers often are outnumbered when companies appeal a citation by legal teams that flood the agency with paperwork to escape enforcement until the cases are resolved, Brown said.
An independent study commissioned by Cal/OSHA identified the need for as many as 258 additional positions. Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom released his budget that included $14.4 million for 70 new posts. Only a small fraction of those will be inspectors. In a statement to CJI and The California Newsroom, the governor’s office said it is considering a phased-in approach for hiring more Cal/OSHA employees in the future.
The most recent Cal/OSHA chief, Doug Parker, is awaiting confirmation to head federal OSHA, leaving the state agency without a permanent leader.
“You have an agency that’s barely able to do what it’s supposed to do,” Brown said, “and presents no threat to irresponsible employers.”
Cal/OSHA laid out additional ways it is attempting to improve its enforcement practices, such as streamlining the citation process and reviewing protocols for closing cases. The agency said even one work-related fatality or serious illness is “too many.”
“Cal/OSHA investigates all notifications of suspect work-related fatalities to determine the cause, identify violations and require employers to correct unsafe or unhealthy conditions,” the agency said.
A Repeat Offender
In 2017, a 16-year old girl working in a watermelon field in Sutter, California grew ill.
When Cal/OSHA inspectors visited the field where the teenager had collapsed, they couldn’t examine the worksite because the harvest had finished and the workers had moved to a new location. Cal/OSHA interviewed the worker and her mother through a translator and cited the company that hired them, Ceja Reyes, for not making them aware of the dangers of heat. Cal/OSHA fined the company $31,365 and told it to make sure all employees received heat training.
Ceja Reyes, based in Sutter County, provides contract farm laborers. Cal/OSHA has cited the company for at least six heat violations in the last decade — many of them after the agency said Ceja Reyes failed to properly train workers.
Roberto Ceja, president and partner at Ceja Reyes, refuted Cal/OSHA’s findings. He said in an interview that the mother and daughter had been trained, but the company forgot to have them sign off on their training sheets.
Nearly two years after the teenager got sick on the job, Cal/OSHA found that Ceja Reyes failed to provide its heat plan to an inspector who made an on-site visit. Cal/OSHA fined the company another $635 for failing to make the plan readily available to workers. Cal/OSHA’s heat program coordinator suggested in the investigative file that Ceja Reyes be considered a repeat offender in the case, which would have meant higher possible fines for similar violations in the future. But the acting district manager at the time declined that designation.
Ceja blamed Cal/OSHA for the string of violations. He said inspectors interpret the law in various ways, making it impossible for farms and contractors to keep up.
“I don’t think their inspectors have plenty of training before they send [them] to the field,’ Ceja said.
Ceja said he supports more stringent heat rules, such as halting all work at 95 degrees, which he said his company does in most cases.
Why It Matters
Put into practice, heat standards can work.
In September of last year, Sonia Bonce was working at the Muranaka Farm in Moorpark, California. The temperature was rising steadily, and it was beyond 90 degrees by lunchtime.
When Bonce stood up to take a lunch break and began walking toward the shade, her vision became blurry, her legs weak. She passed out and hit her head. The farm’s foreman, recognizing the signs of heat-related illness, alerted a supervisor, who called an ambulance.
She felt exhausted and sore for a couple of days; otherwise, there were no lingering physical effects.
Bonce, who has worked the fields since leaving El Salvador more than a decade ago, was spared serious injury or death in part because of her employer’s buy-in. Muranaka’s supervisors noticed the warning signs of heat illness and responded.
Other employers have not been as attentive.
Maria Jimenez, 17, traveled 2,500 miles from her home town of Oaxaca, Mexico, to rural Lodi, California, to find work after her father died. Her uncle, Doroteo Jimenez, had worked in the area for two decades. Maria was employed by Merced Farm Labor Contractors and soon found herself tying grapes into bundles at a local vineyard.
On May 14, 2008, the temperature rose to 86 degrees, seven degrees hotter than the average high for that date over the previous 40 years. Maria was working in the vineyard without shade or water breaks, as required by the heat-safety rules. She became dehydrated and fainted. Another employee took her to a drug store to try to revive her with rubbing alcohol before bringing her to a hospital.
By then, it was too late. Jimenez had a core body temperature of 108 degrees — hot enough for the brain, liver and kidneys to shut down. Her heart stopped six times while doctors tried to revive her. It was then they learned she was pregnant.
San Joaquin County filed criminal manslaughter charges against the owner, safety director and supervisor of Merced Farm, which eventually was shuttered by the state. Cal/OSHA imposed a fine of more than $250,000. In 2011, the company’s executives pled no contest to failing to provide shade and were sentenced to community service, $1,370 in fines and no jail time.
When a company supervisor first contacted him by phone when his niece collapsed, Doroteo Jimenez remembers the supervisor saying she was dizzy. He didn’t think it was that serious. He only realized the gravity of her injuries when he went to visit her.
“At that point, I couldn’t even talk to her anymore,” he said. She died the next day.
The ordeal prompted Doroteo and his wife, Juana, to join union leaders and other activists to push for farmworker protections.
Hundreds of workers walked with Doroteo and Juana some 50 miles to the state Capitol carrying two coffins over several days to draw attention to Maria’s death.
Four years later, the state fortified its heat standard. This time, the state required employers to make water readily available, expand shade coverage and increase the number of breaks. In 2018, on the 10th anniversary of Jimenez’s death, the standard was re-named in her memory.
“There have been many deaths before,” Doroteo said in Spanish, through a translator. “I said that I am going to do something that would not just be thrown away.”
A Broader Problem
California's farmworkers aren't the only workers dying from heat. In the last decade, there have been 10 deaths in construction and four deaths in landscaping.
For California’s workers, the difference between a heat standard that works and one that doesn’t often hinges on employers’ good faith.
Sonia Bonce, the farmworker at Muranaka, said in Spanish through a translator that she appreciates how her employer responded to her bout with heat exhaustion. The company agreed to cover her medical expenses, including the cost of the ambulance. She was allowed to take off the two work days she needed to recuperate, though she said she had to forgo her earnings those days.
The UFW’s Roman Pinal, who organizes laborers in California’s fields, commended the farm’s management for allowing workers to speak up whenever they see problems – a rarity, he said.
“Valuing human lives and a little bit less the production,” Pinal said. “That’s when we’re heading in the right direction.”
But many employers aren’t as conscientious. Until Cal/OSHA hires more inspectors and becomes more proactive, former inspector Brown said, the agency won’t make significant headway against heat deaths.
Even with increased inspections, California’s existing heat standard may need another boost. In Moorpark, for instance, where Muranaka Farm is located, the average maximum temperature has risen one degree in the 16 years since the standard was implemented.
Some Cal/OSHA insiders said state lawmakers should consider mandating a split work day for outdoor laborers to address the ever-escalating temperatures. During the record-breaking heat wave that blanketed the Pacific Northwest in June, many farms switched to early-morning and late-evening hours so workers could avoid the most punishing conditions. Public health officials already recommend that workers avoid midday heat whenever possible.
Others advocate for more drastic labor reforms, such as canceling work on days above 105 degrees. The human body, they say, is simply not equipped to endure such temperatures over long periods.
Enhanced protections can’t come soon enough. At Muranaka Farm in June, a crew of sweat-soaked farmworkers harvested leeks under the scorching sun. The temperature exceeded 90 degrees that day — the second day of an early heat wave. Nearly two dozen laborers, aligned in a row on their hands and knees, plucked the long-stemmed plants from the dirt. They sliced off extraneous leaves with their knives and tossed the vegetables into a pile.
Already this summer, Bonce has felt heat overtake her while she is in the fields. Her chest grows tight and her head spins. Recognizing the warning signs, she’s taken some time off.
“It is hot. It’s not easy work,” Bonce said. “We are struggling every single day to do this.”
Brian Edwards reported this story as a fellow for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School in New York. Jacob Margolis is a reporter at KPCC and LAist, a member of The California Newsroom. David Nickerson, a reporting fellow at CJI, Robert Benincasa, a senior data reporter at NPR, and Cascade Tuholske, a climate impact scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, contributed to the data analysis. Public Health Watch, an independent investigative nonprofit, helped produce this story.
This story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.