California Bill Targets Farmworker Heat Illness Claims

A new CWCI study suggests the new legislation may create administrative challenges without significantly improving agricultural worker safety.
By: | July 2, 2024

A new California bill, SB 1299, would create a presumption of compensability for farmworker heat-related injury claims if the employer is found to be in violation of Cal/OSHA’s outdoor heat illness prevention standard.

However, a recent study by the California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI) suggests that the bill would create more problems than it solves, leading to significant administrative challenges and costs while having little impact on the safety of agricultural workers.

SB 1299 would create a rebuttable presumption of compensability for heat illness claims, removing a requirement that a claimant first prove an injury or illness was work related.

The bill also would presume compensability if an employer is found to be out of compliance with Cal/OSHA’s outdoor heat illness prevention standard. This standard, enacted in 2005 and amended in 2015, requires employers to provide access to shade and water, monitor employees who need to acclimatize to heat, provide training, and have a heat illness plan in place. If the temperature exceeds 85 degrees, employers must initiate high heat procedures, and if it crosses 95 degrees, agricultural workers must take a mandatory 10-minute cool-down break every two hours.

Another significant aspect of SB 1299 is that it would shift the determination of violations from the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board to the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB). This change could create challenges, as WCAB judges may lack the subject matter expertise to determine violations without citations from Cal/OSHA, according to CWCI.

The CWCI analysis found that despite a warming climate, there are relatively few agricultural heat illness claims in the California workers’ compensation system. A review of more than 3.2 million claims filed by California workers from 2019 through 2023 revealed that only 659 of the 100,777 claims filed by agricultural workers (0.65%) were due to heat-related illness. This percentage is comparable for other industries covered by the Cal/OSHA high heat standard, such as landscaping (0.65%), construction (0.67%), and mining, oil and gas extraction (0.56%), CWCI found.

The small percentage of claims involving heat illnesses likely reflects the success of Cal/OSHA’s outdoor heat illness prevention standard.

“The pending legislation is likely to create more challenges than it would solve, entail significant administrative friction costs and is unlikely to have an appreciable impact on the safety of agricultural workers,” the CWCI concluded.

Access the full analysis from CWCI here. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected].

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