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Farm Workers, Union Settle Suit with California over Heat-Related Deaths

The state of California has settled two lawsuits filed by the families of two farm workers who died of heat-related illnesses while working in the field.

The lawsuits, filed by the families and the labor union United Farm Workers in 2009 and 2012, accused California of failing to provide farm workers with adequate access to both water and shade during workers’ shifts in state fields.

According to the Associated Press, the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) must step up its enforcement of agriculture safety regulations as part of the settlement.

In 2008, 17-year-old undocumented worker Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was reportedly hospitalized after pruning grapes for nine hours in near 100-degree heat at a Farmington vineyard. Jimenez, who was two months pregnant, died two days later at a local hospital.

Jimenez’s two farm supervisors were charged with involuntary manslaughter, but took a plea deal that gave them community service and probation and allowed them to avoid jail time, according to the AP.

Estimates differ as to the number of farm workers who have died while working in hot temperatures in California fields; the state claims that 14 agricultural workers died from heat-related illness between 2005 and 2013, while the United Farm Workers union says roughly 30 workers have died in that time frame.

Under the terms of the settlement, Cal/OSHA has vowed to increase its inspections of farms during heat waves, and has granted United Farm Workers watchdog status to ensure safety regulations are followed. The settlement also requires the agency to conduct internal audits, and reportedly allows for farm workers to make formal complaints about work conditions in writing, where they previously had to appear in person to file a complaint.

“We believe there will be more inspections and that action will take place more quickly, especially against repeat and willful violators,” United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez told the AP.

California passed the country’s first heat-illness prevention legislation in 2005. The legislation was amended by the Cal/OSHA Standards Board to include more strict requirements in February.

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