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Field worker's suspected heat-related death closes South Valley farm

AA South Valley farming operation has been temporarily shut down by state officials investigating the suspected heat-related death of a 37-year-old farm worker.

The employee was working for the McFarland-based Etchegaray Farms LLC on Friday when he collapsed in 106 degrees. The worker, identified by the United Farm Workers union as Juan Ochoa, was checking irrigation equipment in a citrus orchard near Richgrove, east of Delano.

Erika Monterroza, spokeswoman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, said the investigation has uncovered several serious violations of the state’s heat illness prevention rules, including no access to shade.

On Tuesday afternoon, Cal/OSHA ordered work to stop at Etchegaray Farms until the violations are fixed.

Along with no access to shade, Monterroza said Etchegaray Farms did not have state-required procedures in place when temperatures reach 95 degrees and above. During periods of high heat, employers must provide effective communication with their workers through voice, cell phone or two-way radio. Employers are also obligated to observe workers for alertness and signs of heat illness.

“We found those high-heat procedures lacking and that constituted an eminent hazard to the workers,” Monterroza said. “And because it posed a serious risk, we took action.”

Officials with Etchegaray Farms, that also has an office in Visalia, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Records show the latest incident is not the first time an employee of Etchegaray Farms has died on the job. In 2010, an employee was killed while working on a wind machine in a blueberry field. One of the blades from the machine fell, striking the worker in the head. No citations were issued in that case.

Friday’s suspected heat-related death in farming is the third one this year being investigated by state officials. On June 22, a 43-year-old nursery worker died in the Stanislaus County town of Hughson. And a 30-year-old farmworker died on July 2 after harvesting watermelons in a field near Coalinga.

UFW officials, who have been critical of the state’s enforcement of the heat illness regulations, said the workers deaths are a tragedy.

“No one harvesting our food should die for lack of water or shade,” said Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president. “Once again, the death of this farm worker appears to have been caused by neglect rather than ignorance.”

Tuesday’s high temperature in Fresno reached 106 by late afternoon, marking the 13th straight day with the high exceeding 100 degrees.

The forecast calls for a high of 103 degrees on Wednesday, 97 on Thursday and 98 Friday.