California failed to protect outside workers from wildfire smoke under Biden’s new OSHA chief

Meanwhile, Cal / OSHA also had to deal with staff shortages that worsened during the pandemic. The statewide inspector vacancy rate hit 26% in February, according to Cal / OSHA, but the agency was able to hire dozens of safety engineers and industrial hygienists. Its vacancy rate for these posts is only 16%. Yet the agency has been overwhelmed by COVID-19-related complaints, labor rights advocates say, and has reduced in-person visits to construction sites for months.

Lucido, the current Cal / OSHA chief, acknowledged that the pandemic has undermined the agency’s ability to raise awareness of the rule, but rebuffed the idea that enforcing smoke protections from fires in forest is not a priority for the agency.

“We are determined to apply this regulation and educate workers about their rights,” she said. “Having the pandemic in play for a year and a half of this new regulation impacted our ability to create material and do other things that we would have wanted to do to engage in awareness. “

Over the past six months, the agency has posted videos and other training materials on its regulations website in Spanish and English and has met with community organizations that can help workers file complaints, a- she added. But there has not been a massive public awareness campaign.

The story of a worker

California’s forest fire smoke requirements for employers are only activated when outside workers may be exposed to forest fire smoke and the air quality index for PM 2.5 is reached. 151 or higher, which the Federal Environmental Protection Agency considers “unhealthy”. At this level, employers must offer workers N95 masks or make modifications to reduce workers’ exposure to smoke. Wearing N95 masks is mandatory when the AQI reaches 500 or more, a level rarely reached even in the worst forest fires and 200 points above the standard of “dangerous” set by the federal government.

Of the top 10 agricultural counties in the state, most of which are in the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno has experienced the most days of wildfire season with an AQI above 150, according to KQED analysis and The California Newsroom from the EPA’s historic air. quality data. Since the smoke rule came into effect, Fresno has experienced a total of 45 days of “unhealthy” air during peak wildfire season.

Analysis of satellite images by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows thick smoke flooded Fresno and other parts of the San Joaquin Valley on October 5, 2021, including fields where farm workers interviewed by KQED and The California Report said they worked that day. Most of the smoke was emanating from the KNP complex fire raging in nearby Sequoia National Park. (Courtesy of NOAA)

One of these days, on October 5, 2021, a 33-year-old immigrant from Mexico said he regularly worked to remove dry vines from the ground near a Fresno highway. The AQI hovered around 160 in the county, according to the EPA, as federal satellite images showed heavy smoke blanketing the field where he was working.

“The smoke was really thick, you could really smell it,” said the worker, who worked in the US for 15 years, in Spanish. “I had a sore throat that day.”

But his employer, an agricultural labor contractor whom he identified as Can II Ag Mgt. Inc., never offered N95 training or masks on smoke days, he said. A large banner for the company was attached to a portable toilet in the field where he worked.

“At work, they didn’t give us any masks at all,” said the worker, who was surprised to learn of the guarantees. “They never taught us a lesson in what to do when there is a lot of pollution from smoke.”

KQED is withholding the man’s name because he fears reprisals from his employer and, like over 40% of agricultural workers in the state, he is undocumented. A second farm worker who said he was also employed by Can II Ag Mgt., Based in Kerman, provided similar testimony.

Backlit by a bright sun on a four-wheel elongated trailer is a red portable toilet with a handwashing station on the left and an olive-colored corporate sign nearly flush with the toilet and three times as long on the right.  The trailer sits on a dirt road next to a field.
A banner for Can II Ag Mgt. stands next to a portable toilet in a Fresno County field where farm workers said the company did not offer them N95 masks or other required protection during days of heavy smoke. (Farida Jhabvala Romero / KQED)

Several attempts to reach Guillermo Cantu, general manager of Can II Ag Mgt. according to Californian company documents, failed. But his wife and colleague, Angie Garcia, said they were aware of the wildfire smoke rule and referred the questions to their lawyer.

“We provide everything you need to use while they work,” she said.

Company attorney Anthony Raimondo denied the farm workers’ claims but declined to provide evidence that Can II Ag Mgt. had taken measures to reduce workers’ exposure to smoke from forest fires.

“The business is in compliance with all state of California rules. We deny the allegations 100%, ”said Raimondo, president of Raimondo & Associates in the city of Fresno. “These are unsubstantiated and unfounded statements. And there will be no further comments.

Data provided by Cal / OSHA shows that no worker has filed a complaint against this company.

Farida Jhabvala Romero is a reporter for KQED in San Francisco. She produced this survey for The California Newsroom. Aaron Glantz, newsroom surveys editor, edited this article with editor Adriene Hill. It was edited by David Marks and a copy edited by Jenny Pritchett of KQED.

The California Newsroom is a collaboration between NPR, 17 public radio stations across the state, from San Diego to the Oregon border, and CalMatters.


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