Beating field heat inspires various solutions
Three-year-old regulations to protect California farmworkers from heat stress are inspiring some imaginative and generous responses by farmers.
Sometimes puzzling and frustrating to inspectors who enforce the regulations, the farmer reactions and the methods they are providing underscore the individuality that is a trademark of farmers wherever they live.
Protection from the blazing summer sun in the Central Valley must have been foremost in the minds of legislators and others as the regulations were enacted in 2005. Enforcement has become more complete and more vigorous in subsequent years.
The regulations apply throughout the state. But the rationale supporting them is somewhat questionable in the Santa Maria area, where extreme heat is practically unknown. Two weeks of near 100-degree temperatures are about the worst the residents can expect there. The same is true in practically all the agricultural areas along the coast, from Mendocino County to San Diego.
Yet, a grower in Santa Maria has developed an extensive and imaginative heat-protection structure that is sure to set a standard for such shelters. It is basically a flatbed trailer with comfortable seating, space for a picnic table when the crew is large, storage area and a fabric roof. It is open on all sides to admit cooling breezes, but side curtains can be pulled down to block a lowering sun.
Tandem axles give the trailer stability when it is being towed to be near a work location and while it is parked during lunch or rest periods. Jacks can be extended to provide further support and stability. A sturdy railing defines the perimeter, turned into a hand railing where steps allow access to the one-level platform. Workers stow their lunches in closed cabinets aboard, knowing the trailer will follow them and be near at lunchtime and other breaks throughout the day.
The unit was developed by PacFresh, a major broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and celery grower in Santa Maria. Manager Tom Dantoni said the trailer is easily towed by tractor or pickup, and can be conveniently located near the crew's work location, even when that is deep into a field being harvested.
"Workers enjoy the convenience and comfort of having the unit close to their work site," he said. Its self-contained water tank allows them to wash up before they eat, and a portable toilet is always kept nearby.
In much of the Central Valley shade is provided by trees and vines that are the focus of workers' activity. While such a portable unit as used at PacFresh is too cumbersome for grape and tree fruit production, growers are providing their own versions of shade shelters portable enough to keep pace with crews advancing through their orchards and vineyards.
The shelters include everything from oversized beach umbrellas to portable canopies that include battery-powered cooling units, plenty of cool drinking water and comfortable seating. It is only a matter of time until improvement and expansion of these accommodations start approaching the luxurious.
While the lunch trailers in Santa Barbara County aren't exactly sidewalk cafes or quaint bistros, they certainly elevate lunch for the workers to a new level. Who knows? Hanging an artistic sign and listing some lunch specialties might attract passers-by.
It's probable that the dreaded heat inspectors with their OSHA badges will find the coolest and best of the shade shelters for their midmorning and mid-afternoon breaks. Once they have the shelters catalogued and located, stopping by for lunch in their state vehicles might become a routine treat.
What's next, car hops?
CONTACT Don Curlee at firstname.lastname@example.org