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Central Valley farmers deal with the summer heat

With temperatures on the rise, Central Valley farmers have many ways to fight the heat in regards to their employees.

According to Jay Majil, president of Creekside Farming and president of the Madera County Farm Bureau board, OSHA (Occupational, Safety and Hazard Administration) regulations kick in when it’s hotter than 85 degrees.

Basically, those regulations are in affect in the Valley from May through late October.

“After 85 degrees, we have to have shade tents up, cold water, able to allow employees to take rest breaks when it gets too hot to work,” Mahil said. “Pretty much, every day in California from June on is a day you have to watch for heat. We’ve invested in more shade trailers, more ice machines when guys come into work, there’s ice available for them to fill their water coolers with. We’ve put in filtered water stations in at our facilities so they have clean drinking water.”

A way to help combat heat illness is to let everyone be aware of it. The Madera County Farm Bureau offered heat illness training. By law, Mahil says, supervisors must be trained to notice symptoms and employees are trained to know what heat illness symptoms are.

“The heat has gotten worse in the Valley, especially with the drought,” Mahil said. “It’s something that, as an employer, I have no problem implementing. If my employees are not feeling good or are feeling sick, those are employees that won’t be showing up the next day. I want to make sure when they are at my facilities, they are being taken care of well. Most growers have done that.

“The agriculture community has done a great job of implementing those rules and training those employees. Sometimes, especially male farm workers, don’t want to admit they need to take a break. That’s when the supervisor comes in to tell them to take a break. It’s difficult to get that mindset, but I think the employees appreciate it.”

Mahil also has measures when temperatures get too hot, over 103 degrees.

“We’ll start our operations earlier in the morning,” he said. “We’ll have our guys come in at 5. Then, we’ll run a shorter day so by the time the heat index rises, we’re calling it quits for the day so our workers can go home and be somewhere more comfortable than being in the fields. Employees don’t like that because they don’t like their hours getting cut. We explain to them it’s for their own benefit and don’t want to penalize them. We don’t want them getting sick or injured out in the field because of the heat and getting sent home or to the hospital. Most growers in the area shift to an earlier start time. Most growers are spraying at night because of the heat. Employees have a choice to doing some night work.”

Some crops are harvested at night. Mahil’s wine grapes are harvest in the cooler temperatures of the night to stop the fermentation process.

“The cooler weather doesn’t allow the grapes to start fermenting,” he said. “The hotter weather makes the grapes start fermenting quicker, which doesn’t help the wine maker because the process has already started so they can’t control the wine making part of it. They would rather have the growers pick at night when it’s cooler and by the time the fruit gets to the winery, they control the fermentation process. Almonds, there are certain things you can do at night, but not a lot because of the visibility. Growers, when they can, will run equipment in the evening.”

Mahil makes sure his workers are aware of the heat and some of the symptoms. He hosts a monthly safety meeting with a safety manager he has on staff.

“Our supervisors are out in the fields taking out water,” he said. “My supervisors has an OSHA app on their pnone that tells them the heat index. Even though it’s 100 degrees, it could feel like 105 degrees so they monitor that to make sure it’s safe for the guys to be out there. I give my managers full reign. Even if it’s only 98 degrees, if they feel it’s not safe to be out there, to go ahead to pull the guys out of the field. Maybe we can change a job duty to do some work inside where it’s cooler.

“It hurts us when we cut hours because of the productivity. I would rather my employees be safe. We want to be fair with our employees.”

When the temperatures soared to 110 degrees, Mahil knew it was coming and made amendments to the work schedule.

“We came in early morning and coming in nights to stay away from the 2-5 p.m. heat,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do. It just adds more days to do catch-up work. We try to schedule out work knowing that heat is coming. We’ll try to make sure our work is caught up so if we lose some days to that heat, we’re not behind the ball and caught up and not too far behind.”

The Central Valley’s summer heat is nothing new and Mahil knows it comes around every year.

“It’s not that hard to forecast,” he said. “We understand, around this time, it’s going to be hot.”

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