Death of Vineyard Worker Under Investigation

Cal/OSHA reminds growers and contractors of heat stress dangers

by Jane Firstenfeld
Heat Stress awareness poster
Heat Stress awareness poster
Lodi, Calif. -- Authorities are investigating claims of inadequate safety measures as they probe the May 16 death of a 17-year-old farmworker who died of heat stress. Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was pruning grapevines in near-100° heat two days earlier in a vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming, where she collapsed near the end of an eight-hour shift.

The incident is being investigated by California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), which only the day before Vasquez' collapse had issued a release asking employers to let their workers acclimate to high heat and humidity.

Dean Fryer, from Cal/OSHA's department of industrial relations, told Wines & Vines that by law, the employer is responsible for on-the-job injuries. Penalties can range from "a couple hundred of dollars to many thousands," Fryer said, with a maximum fine of $25,000 per violation. The maximum penalty is applied to employers who are found to engage in willful violation of Cal/OSHA regulations.

Vasquez was employed by farm labor contractor Merced Farm Labor of Atwater, Calif. Fryer noted that the contractor had previously been investigated and cited in August 2006. It was fined $750 for each violation: one for lacking an injury/illness prevention program, one for a violation of in-field toilet/water provisions, and the third for not having a training program for heat illness prevention. The citations were the result of a random inspection by Cal/OSHA staff. No one at the company was available for comment today.

According to a report in the Stockton Record, Vasquez' boyfriend, Florentino Bautista, was working nearby. Although supervisors from the contracting company and vineyard attempted to revive the young woman when Bautista notified them of her condition, they did not call 911, the Record reported.

Bautista eventually drove Vasquez to a Lodi clinic. She was subsequently carried by ambulance to Lodi Memorial Hospital, where she died after remaining in a coma for 36 hours, according to Vicki Adame, communications director for the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

Adame said Vasquez was an undocumented worker who had arrived from her native Oaxaca, Mexico, in February to help support her widowed mother. "She'd only been on the job three days," Adame told Wines & Vines. Adame said that some news sources reported that Vasquez's age was 18, but she was only 17 when she died, and two months pregnant.

"The contractor is supposed to know the safety regulations," Adame said. "They are supposed to provide fresh, clean water nearby; the workers should have breaks every hour. They should have someone there who is trained in first aid and who knows how to recognize and deal with heat stress. What we see is that this never happens." Instead, Adame said, supervisors failed to summon medical aid, and Vasquez did not receive treatment for an hour or more after she collapsed.

Asked whether Vasquez' undocumented status might have caused her supervisors to delay getting help, Adame commented, "That, and the fact that she was underage." She said, "At this point, our political department is working on it to make sure it won't happen again."

"Our studies of heat-related illnesses and deaths indicate that acclimatization is an important factor in the prevention of heat illness," Cal/OSHA chief Len Welsh stated. "It is especially critical to be vigilant with new workers, and during our first exposure to the high temperatures such as those we are currently experiencing."

Most people adjust to weather extremes within four to 14 days, according to Cal/OSHA data. "It is imperative to monitor your employees at all times during hot weather, and allow those who are new to working in hot weather to gradually adapt to the daily routine."

The agency has a set of Heat Illness Prevention Standards requiring mandatory training for employees and supervisors (see these at dir.ca.gov/dosh/heatillnessInfo.html). Additional suggestions include an early workday start, pacing work activities, increasing the number of water and rest breaks or preventative recovery periods on hot days, and use of a "buddy system" to monitor employees in the field.

Symptoms of heat stress include mental confusion, delirium, loss of consciousness, convulsions or coma; body temperature of 106°F or higher and hot, dry skin that may be red, mottled or blue-tinged. Prompt first aid can prevent permanent injury: move the victim to a cool area; soak her clothing with cold water, and fan vigorously to increase cooling while awaiting medical help.

In 2005, California became the first state to develop a safety and health regulation addressing heat illness; permanent regulations to protect outdoor workers were issued in 2006. Cal/OSHA studies show that effective reduction of heat illness depends on written procedures, access to water, access to cooler areas, acclimatization and weather monitoring, emergency response and employee and supervisor training.

A memorial service for Vasquez will be held May 28 at 11 a.m. at St. Anne's Catholic Church, 215 W. Walnut St., Lodi, Calif. Donations to help with burial arrangements and transportation of Vasquez' body to Oaxaca are being accepted. For more information, contact Luis Magaña at Proyecto Voz (Project Voice), 209-465-4265.
Currently no comments posted for this article.