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Workers' heat deaths spur bill from Grijalva, others to create federal protections

A bill introduced this week by Congressman Raúl Grijalva and other lawmakers aims to provide federal protections for workers exposed to extreme heat. 

The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury and Fatality Prevention Act is named in honor of Asunción Valdivia, a farmworker who died of heat stroke in 2004 in California after picking grapes for ten hours straight in 105 degree heat. 

The legislation also comes on the heels of the death of Dario Mendoza, a 25-year-old farmworker who collapsed while working in the fields in Yuma last week and died in a hospital of suspected heat-related causes. 

Protective gear, paid breaks

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, requires employers to provide workplaces free of recognized health hazards, but doesn't lay out stringent rules for extreme heat.

The new legislation would require employers to give workers protective gear like cooling vests and take part in trainings to recognize the signs of heat illness. It also calls for mandated, paid rest breaks throughout the day.

Shefali Minczarek-Desai, an associate law professor at the University of Arizona, said Arizona should also create its own standards.

"Arizona doesn’t need to wait for the federal legislation to come down. That’s something that the federal OSHA folks have said they’re working on, but that could take many years to promulgate a new rule on the federal level," she said. 

Lawmakers introduced a version of the this week's bill in 2021, but it failed to pass.

Agriculture workers at risk

Minczarek-Desai said many migrant agricultural workers are employed on special visas that tie them to a single employer, while others are paid based off the work they do, rather then the hours they put in. She says the lack of strict regulations in Arizona and other states creates too much space for things to go wrong.

"You could see a scenario where an employer says, 'hey, if you want you can have a break,' and workers, especially workers who don't truly understand the dire risk of extreme heat, might say, 'no, I'm not going to ask for that break, because I want my employer to know that I'm a hard worker.'"

Minczarek-Desai in addition to introducing formal regulations, Arizona should strengthen state resources to investigate possible labor violations.

More stories about Phoenix's heat wave

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.