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Farm hands worked in Ventura County despite Thomas Fire smoke

A volunteer with the advocacy group Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy speaks with farm workers in a field near Oxnard in Ventura County last week while distributing face masks. Farm worker advocates say some field hands worked without protective masks despite the ash and smoke from the Thomas Fire. Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy

As the Thomas Fire raged in Ventura County and smoke thickened the air in the past week, some farm workers continued to toil in local fields without face protection, according to field worker advocates. 

State regulations do not explicitly require that employers equip farm workers with masks and other protective equipment, although they are advised to consider doing so.

Smoke from the fire that sparked a week ago and scorched about 200,000 acres drifted over a large swath of Ventura County. Officials have warned people in the fire areas to avoid the acrid smoke, which poses health hazards to anyone breathing in the polluted air.

But even as the smoke covered affected agricultural fields, farm worker advocates say some field hands continued to work unprotected.

"We confirmed that there were workers out picking strawberries and cabbage in local fields in Oxnard, and some of them did not have face masks," said Yajaira Valdovinos, an attorney with the Oxnard office of California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal nonprofit serving low-income communities.

Some of the workers used bandanas in an attempt to filter out the smoke, she said, but state health officials say these do not offer sufficient protection. They recommend N95 or P100 particular respirator masks as the most effective lung protection for people exposed to the wildfire smoke.

Lucas Zucker with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, an advocacy group, said volunteers from the organization distributed hundreds of the protective face masks last week to the region's predominantly Latino immigrant farm workers.

"There are incredibly dangerous air conditions right now, and farm workers are out there, the majority that we are seeing without proper protective masks," Zucker said Friday.

There are roughly 36,000 farm workers employed in the Ventura County agriculture industry, according to data from the county's farm bureau.

Some growers contacted by KPCC said they had taken measures to protect workers. One grower said workers were sent home and another said the workers were given face masks and the option to leave if they felt unwell.

Robert Chevez, a spokesman for Reiter Affiliated Companies, a grower in the area, said their workers  in the hardest-hit areas were sent home. Others in fields with better air quality continued to work wearing N95 masks.

The company said in a statement that when air quality reaches unsafe conditions, the company "has and will continue to cease operations until conditions return to safe levels."

Organizations representing local growers said they sent guidance to members encouraging them to check air quality, provide face masks, and allow workers to leave if necessary.

"Look, if there is any doubt, and you check the air quality and it doesn't look good, then don't call people to work — or send them home," said Rob Roy, president and general counsel for the 200-member Ventura County Agricultural Association. "We are hoping that most people are following that advice."

He said, however, that while employers are legally required to generally provide a “safe and healthful” work environment, there are no explicit rules requiring that growers provide protective face masks to their workers in the event of a wildfire.

The California Department of Industrial Relations issued an advisory last week saying that employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke “must consider taking appropriate measures" such as providing workers with face masks or limiting their time outdoors. But the decision as to what steps to take is in the hands of employers.

Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the department, said employers could be cited in some instances for exposing workers to unsafe conditions, but that "there is no prescription, because it really depends on the situation."

Advocates like Valdovinos at California Rural Legal Assistance say the guidelines are inadequate, and that tighter regulations are needed in light of the many wildfires that have affected farm comunities in Southern and Northern California this year.

"We need to enact some legislation, because we don't have anything specific," Valdovinos said.

Clarification: California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. provides legal services to farm workers but does not work on legislation; its sister agency, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, works on legislation related to the working environment of farm workers.  
 
This story has been updated.