What's at stake?
Central Valley labor advocates say the Cal/OSHA Fresno expansion is necessary to respond to the deadly combination of high hazard industries and high noncompliance from employers.
Cal/OSHA is setting up additional offices in Fresno to help inspectors “respond more efficiently” to complaints in the area.
The department is expanding their presence locally due to an increase in complaints, accidents, and the need for high-heat inspections, an August announcement from the department said.
The expansion is needed, Central Valley labor experts say, in a region where industries like meatpacking and farming – known for higher rates of preventable injuries and illnesses – dominate. These Valley employers’ tendency to fail to comply with worker health and safety regulations compounds the issue.
“Our hope is that having more focus from Cal/OSHA in the Central Valley will also hopefully expand their ability to educate workers,” said Alice Berliner, the worker health & safety program director at UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center, “(and) expand their ability to hold employers accountable.”
Beyond just increasing the department’s bandwidth, however, some advocates add that Cal/OSHA will also have to increase its efforts to build trust with workers.
“Even if they have an office,” said Sarait Martinez, executive director of indigenous workers’ rights nonprofit Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, “until we … see concrete actions and steps to meet workers’ needs, I don’t see how the agency could be successful.”
Central Valley home to ‘high hazard’ industries
Cal/OSHA said that “no specific incidents in Fresno related to extreme heat” prompted the decision to expand.
The department didn’t provide any other examples of specific incidents that triggered the move, instead saying it had more to do with demographic patterns. The agency also declined to specify exactly how many new inspectors would be added to the Fresno office as part of the expansion.
“Fresno is not only one of the ten largest cities in California,” Cal/OSHA spokesperson Derek Moore said in an email, “but Fresno and Fresno County had some of the largest gains in population during the pandemic, so it is a key area for us.”
But recent studies have helped paint a picture of the uniquely hazardous situation workers in the Fresno area face, according to Berliner.
“There’s a mix of things happening,” she said. “There’s high noncompliance in the Central Valley among employers.”
In the meatpacking study, researchers found that between 2015 and 2020, the Central Valley had the highest number of inspections, prompted by accidents or complaints, from OSHA out of any region in the state. But it also had the second lowest rates of violations issued to employers following inspections.
The statewide farmworker study showed noncompliance specifically in the area of addressing extreme heat, which has disproportionately impacted the Central Valley in recent years. Researchers found that over 40% of farmworkers reported that their employer “never” provided them with a heat illness prevention plan.
The death of Fresno-area farmworker Elidio Hernández Gomez while working in triple-digit heat in August recently reignited discussions of heat protections for outdoor workers.
“Workers are in isolated, rural locations,” Berliner added, “and many are reporting that they’re not getting the education that they need and want, in terms of their rights.”
“But even when they do know their rights on the job,” she said, “there’s a lot of fear of actually speaking up.”
Other barriers for Central Valley workers
For thousands of undocumented workers in the Fresno area, the fears of retaliation go beyond just losing their jobs. Workers can also face immigration-related retaliation and weigh risking their path to citizenship when deciding whether to speak up.
“We were seeing that a ton during the Trump era,” Berliner said, “but it still happens.”
Moore, the Cal/OSHA spokesperson, said the department is mindful of these concerns about access and are working to address them.
“We recognize obstacles and fears that may keep workers from reporting safety hazards to Cal/OSHA and wage and retaliation complaints with the Labor Commissioner’s Office,” he said. “We continue to conduct significant outreach and enforcement efforts to address this.”
Language access poses another barrier for workers, including many of the farmworkers that Martinez’s organization serves, who speak several different indigenous languages.
Cal/OSHA confirmed it has bilingual certified staff in the department, as well as staff who are proficient in languages other than English who aren’t necessarily certified. The department also contracts with interpretation services and considers it “essential” for staff to be able to conduct “multilingual interviews during inspections.”
Another top concern Martinez hears from workers is regarding Cal/OSHA’s response time. Time is of the essence for these workers, who will often move between fields depending on the cycle of crops.
“If Cal/OSHA doesn’t show up right away,” she said, “maybe next week workers won’t be at the same place.”
There’s a lot of trust to build so workers will feel confident something will actually happen in response to their complaints, Martinez said.
How to access Cal/OSHA’s existing resources in Fresno
Cal/OSHA’s existing enforcement and consultation office in Fresno is located at 2550 Mariposa St.
The enforcement branch investigates accidents and complaints, conducts inspections of high hazard industries, and issues citations, according to the state Department of Industrial Relations’ site.
The consultation office provides educational resources to both employers and workers on safety and compliance.
Workers can file complaints about safety and health hazards confidentially at the Cal/OSHA district office nearest to them, a list of which is available online.
Workers can also call 833-579-0927 Monday through Friday between the hours of 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. to speak with a bilingual Cal/OSHA representative, according to the department’s August press release.