California’s Proposed Regulations for Night Farm Work Spark Debate

 

By Toni Vranjes May 28, 2019
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California regulators have issued proposed rules to increase safety on farms during nighttime operations. Worker advocates and employer groups had very different reactions to the proposal.

The goal of the proposed standards is to make seeing and being seen at night easier for workers, so the rules provide for very technical requirements about illumination levels for nighttime farm work.

While labor unions argue that the proposed standards are generally well-crafted, many employer groups say they would have trouble complying with certain provisions.

Background

In a 2013 letter, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) drew attention to safety concerns about nighttime farm operations. Cal/OSHA stated that revised standards were needed in response to a number of nighttime accidents.

In response to the letter, the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board held meetings to address the dangers of nighttime agricultural work. The proposed regulations are the "result of a very collaborative process that occurred over a number of years," according to Christina Shupe, the board's executive officer.

Proposed Rules

The key elements of the regulations provide that:

  • Lighting levels must meet certain specifications in various areas of the worksite.
  • Employers must provide hands-free portable personal lighting if other lighting sources can't meet the specified illumination levels.
  • Supervisors must conduct safety meetings at the beginning of every shift.
  • High-visibility clothing must be worn for nighttime work.
  • Trucks, in addition to other vehicles, must have functioning headlights.
  • Farm-equipment headlights must be used from sunset to sunrise.

Although employers would be required to comply with the specified illumination levels, they would be able to choose the exact type of lighting to use. According to the regulations, they could determine the type of lamps, the number and type of light fixtures, and the setup. This would give employers some flexibility, Shupe said.

Differing Views

Labor groups have sent letters to the board, urging it to approve the regulations. In a letter from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Western States Council, the group notes that nighttime harvesting of grapes, onions, garlic, sweet corn, lettuce and broccoli is now very common.

"Without adequate light, workers are at great risk of tripping on uneven ground, falling into ditches or ponds, and being hit or run over by machinery and other vehicles," according to the letter.

The labor group added that insufficient lighting also creates other potential hazards. "Inadequate lighting of bathrooms, break and parking areas puts workers at risk of workplace violence including sexual assault and robbery," the UFCW wrote.

Business organizations chimed in, asserting that the specific lighting requirements "will be impossible to obtain and maintain as the agricultural workplace changes during a work shift."

Not only would compliance be difficult, but the new standard also would be very expensive for businesses, according to Alden Parker, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Sacramento.

"The biggest thing that is an issue here is the requirement of all these different illumination levels in different places throughout the worksite at night," he said.

Buying the necessary lighting equipment would be expensive, and regulators have overestimated the cost savings from the proposed rules, he added.

The California Department of Industrial Relations estimated that prevented accidents would save about $36.7 million annually. The estimate is based on 2,080 injury cases multiplied by $17,622, which was the average workers' compensation cost of farm-injury claims in 2013 and 2014.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Complying with California Safety Standards]

"What these regulations claim is that there's a huge number of nighttime accidents that are somehow preventable" by the proposed lighting standards, Parker said. "I don't think they've gone ahead and made that type of showing."

Roger Crawford, an attorney with Best Best & Krieger in Los Angeles and Ontario, Calif., said it's not clear that the specific lighting requirements are reasonable considering the expected cost.

The California Department of Industrial Relations estimated that the total industry cost for complying with the proposal would be $31.6 million for the first year.

Crawford noted that other parts of the regulations, such as the mandatory safety meetings and the high-visibility clothing, seem to make sense.

Regulators are interested in feedback from all parties, Shupe said. The department's analysis provides cost estimates drawn from data from advisory committee meetings, a survey of agricultural employers and market research.

"The proposed regulations themselves were drafted in consultation with both labor and management stakeholders," she added. "That engagement continues, as board staff are currently considering and responding to feedback provided during the public hearing."

Toni Vranjes is a freelance business writer in San Pedro, Calif.

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