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Calif. rules to protect outdoor workers from smoke are rarely enforced, probe finds


The state of California has rules to protect outdoor workers from the dangers of wildfire smoke. It has rules, but almost never enforces them. That's the finding of an investigation by KQED and the California Newsroom collaborative.

Farida Jhabvala Romero reports.

FARIDA JHABVALA ROMERO, BYLINE: Breathing wildfire smoke can lead to serious health problems, like worsening asthma and heart failure. So when there's unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke, California employers are required to reduce exposure, such as by moving workers indoors or providing N95 masks. But in Fresno, the state's top-producing agricultural county, many farmworkers I spoke with say they've continued to work in heavy smoke with no protections.



JHABVALA ROMERO: In a field by the highway, a man pulls dried grapevines from the soil. He's worked in U.S. agriculture for 15 years. I hand him a wrapped N95 mask and ask if his boss ever offered him one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: "No. At work, they haven't given us masks at all," he says. We're not using his name because he says he fears retaliation from his employer. And, like more than 40% of the state's ag workers, he's undocumented. An estimated 4 million people work outdoors in California. Over the last two years the rule's been in place, the state has faced the worst wildfire seasons on record. But the agency tasked with protecting workers' safety cited employers for violating the smoke rules just 11 times. The official who was in charge of enforcement at Cal/OSHA just got a bigger job as head of federal OSHA.


PATTY MURRAY: Senators will each have five minutes for a round of questions.

JHABVALA ROMERO: During his Senate confirmation hearing this spring, Doug Parker told lawmakers a top priority is to enforce work safety laws.


DOUG PARKER: We also have to be able to deliver the goods once those workers have the trust in us to come forward.

JHABVALA ROMERO: He declined to speak with KQED and directed us to Dan Lucido, who's now the acting chief of Cal/OSHA.

DAN LUCIDO: We are a leader in providing worker protection, including against smoke.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Do you really believe that there's only 11 violations of this law over two years?

LUCIDO: So, first of all, we can only respond to complaints that are issued. And in all of the cases where we responded and found evidence of a violation, we issued a citation.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Back in the field in Fresno, the worker says he didn't know about the rule, so he couldn't complain about not getting the required protections. His employer never told him how to stay safe on smoky days, he says.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: And that's something the rule says employers must also do in a language workers understand.

Can II Ag Management employs workers in this field.

ANGIE GARCIA: We already sent over your email to our attorney. So he is the one that's going to be responding to it.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Angie Garcia works at Can II Ag Management. I contacted her after sending a request for comment.

GARCIA: We provide everything necessary for them to, you know, use while they're working.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Later, the attorney told KQED the company is in compliance with the smoke safety rules, but declined to provide any evidence. What's really needed, advocates and state lawmakers say, are strike teams of Cal/OSHA inspectors in the fields on smoky days. But a bill to do just that died in the state legislature earlier this year after Governor Gavin Newsom's administration opposed it.

For NPR News, I'm Farida Jhabvala Romero in Fresno.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENDLESS DIVE'S "HEAVY CLOUDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Farida Jhabvala Romero