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Photo: A farm worker is pictured in a field in Arvin, southeast of Bakersfield, California. David McNew/Getty Images
A farm worker is pictured in a field in Arvin, southeast of Bakersfield, California. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Sen. Alex Padilla’s bill to protect farmworkers exposed to dangerous heat conditions

The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, if passed, will protect the safety and health of workers exposed to dangerous heat conditions…

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It’s not even Summer yet, but next week the Imperial Valley in Southwestern California is set to near 100 degrees fahrenheit. As a major agricultural center, harvesting is set to continue through the Summer to harvest carrots, onions, sweet corn, bell peppers, chili peppers, and melons.  

During this time the temperatures will soar even higher. 

The Central Valley, the largest agricultural hub in the United States, will eventually reach the high 90’s as Summer progresses.

Sen. Alex Padilla, California’s first Latino Senator, is introducing legislation with fellow members of Congress to combat heat-related stress. The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, if passed, will protect the safety and health of workers exposed to dangerous heat conditions in the workplace, namely the AG workers who work in extreme heat like the Imperial and Central Valleys. 

Valdivia was only 53 years old when he died of a heat stroke from harvesting grapes in over 100-degree weather for over 10 hours in the San Joaquin Valley in July 2004. 

He fell unconscious that day in June and instead of calling an ambulance, his employer told Valdivia’s son to drive his father home. On his way home, he died of heat stroke. 

Valdivia’s then-21-year-old son sent his body back to Mexico to be buried. The son returned to work at the same vineyard days later, for the same grower. 

It was a tragedy that farm worker advocates say was avoidable. 

Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) are introducing the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act alongside Padilla. 

Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are also co-sponsoring the legislation, while Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) is leading companion legislation in the House of Representative with Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ.), and Alma Adams (D-NC).

Padilla himself has been pushing for the legislation since 2018. 

“Between 1992 and 2017, heat stress injuries killed 815 U.S. workers and seriously injured more than 70,000. Climate change is making the problem worse. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the last seven years have been the hottest years on record, with 2020 coming in only second to 2016,” reads a fact sheet on the bill. 

There are currently no federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards to ensure that workers aren’t exposed to dangerous work conditions in the workplace. 

The issue extends beyond agriculture. 

Workers in factories, warehouses, steel mills, commercial kitchens, and more may face dangerous heat conditions year-round. 

Some states have already adopted their own heat stress standards. California, Minnesota and Washington, as well as the U.S. military have adopted their own heat stress standards, but the rest of the country is unaccounted for. 

The proposed bill would require OSHA to establish enforceable standards to protect workers in such environments, with measures like paid breaks in cool spaces, access to water, limitations on time exposed to heat, and emergency response for workers with heat-related illnesses. 

The bill would also direct employers to provide employee training on the risks that may lead to heat illness, as well as guidance on the best way to respond to symptoms. The bill also provides whistle-blower protections. 

“Mr. Valdivia's death was completely preventable,” Padilla wrote on Twitter.  “In his honor and for all of our workers on the front lines today, we must act.”

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