Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez was only 17 when she died while working in the scorching heat for over nine hours, in a California vineyard. The only source of water was a 10 minute walk away and the temperatures had reached a dangerous 95 degrees that day. Going against California’s heat regulation standards issued in 2005, the farmworkers were denied a nearby source of drinking water, shade from the sun, training on how to recognize symptoms of heat illness, and quick medical attention. When Maria Isavel lost consciousness, her supervisor delayed taking her to a hospital for almost two hours, hours that could have saved her life.
“They aren’t taking this seriously because they don’t know what the life of a farmworker is like. They have comfortable jobs. They don’t know what it’s like to work in the fields.”- Doroteo Jimenez, Maria Isavel’s Uncle
AFOP’s Proyecto Sol provides training for farmworkers to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illness, how to prevent heat stress/heat stroke, and what to do in cases of emergency. It also provides agricultural employers with training on how to prevent a heat stress incident and how to properly respond if an incident does occur. These trainings are provided free of charge to both farmworkers and growers. By continuing to expand this important program, we hope to reach more and more farmworkers and their employers, and prevent future tragedies.
In 2009, when Maria Isavel died, five other farmworkers also died in California because of heat-related causes. All of their deaths could have been prevented, if basic health and safety standards would have been followed and trainings would have been provided. Unfortunately, many of these work standards go unchecked, with lack of inspections of farms and untrained subcontractors and employers. For example, in 2006, Merced Farm Labor, the company Maria Isavel worked for, was issued citations for exposing workers to heat stroke and failing to train workers on heat stress prevention. The citations and violations were ignored by the company, resulting in the tragic loss of a young life. What is even more concerning is that most states don’t even have heat regulation standards in place. There is no actual way of telling how many abuses occur all over the country in the hot summer months; only the stories of the workers themselves would inform the public, if they had more means to be heard.
AFOP’s heat stress prevention project started in July 2010, and it is our newest health and safety program. Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) through a Susan B. Harwood Training Grant, the program trains farmworkers and their employers how to prevent heat stress. It also teaches what steps can be taken to mitigate damage from heat stress, such as what symptoms to look for, cooling the person down, removing socks, shoes and hats, and getting person medical care as soon as possible.
Senseless deaths like Maria Isavel’s can and must be prevented in the future. Through this heat stress prevention project we hope to assist in this endeavor by educating farmworkers and growers on the importance of shade, water, and breaks. The health and safety of farmworkers must be a priority. For more information on Proyecto Sol please contact Jessica Werder via email at werder[at]afop.org.