State regulators are weighing new rules for making nighttime agricultural work — a risky activity with relatively few labor protections as compared with other industries — safer for those who perform it.
Measures being proposed by California's Department of Industrial Relations include requiring employers to provide front- and rear-facing tractor lamps as well as work-area lighting and force farmworkers to wear high-visibility safety vests.
While state law mandates lighting and reflective vests for construction workers performing roadwork, there are currently no illumination requirements specific to night work in agriculture, where laborers are generally in close proximity to vehicles and other powerful equipment.
Most Central Valley farm work is done during daylight hours. But crops such as grapes and onions are often harvested at night, and regulators have noted that working at night can be preferable because it avoids exposing workers to the worst heat of the day.
The state has been looking at how to make harvest and other tasks safer since 2013, when the then-acting chief of the Department of Industrial Relations, Juliann Sum, called attention to a series of nighttime accidents in California ag fields.
In January of 2005, the agency reported, a worker riding a grape harvester sustained a serious head injury after hitting his head on a bridge structure. In September of 2005, another grape harvester was killed, apparently after being struck by a tractor wheel. in March of the following year, a supervisor walking in front of a grape harvester fell after losing his balance and was run over by a grape-harvesting machine, which broke some of his bones.
All three of the incidents happened after sunset or before sunrise, according to the agency's accident summaries.
United Farm Workers Secretary-Treasurer Armando Elenes said many local growers "don't put any lights out there" and that workers seeking better visibility must buy their own headlamps. Going without illumination becomes risky, he said, partly because harvesting onions requires using sharp knives in the dark.
"It can get dangerous," he said, adding he supports forcing employers to provide additional light for ag workers.
Some Central Valley ag operations, but not all, have in recent years put in place "best practices" calling for light towers to illuminate loading zones and bathrooms. Some additionally outfit workers with high-visibility vests, safety glasses and battery-operated headlamps.
A spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations noted there have been multiple advisory committee meetings convened in advance of the state's formal rule-making process.
He said by email a draft of the latest proposal will soon be posted for a 15-day comment period. After the proposal's wording is finalized, the agency's Standards Board will vote on whether to make it a formal rule.