By Kevin Deutsch
The U.S. Department of Labor has cited a farm labor contractor for failing to prevent the death of a 28-year-old farmworker in Parkland, authorities said.
Heat illness killed the man on Jan. 1, 2023, a day after he arrived in Parkland from Mexico with his work visa in hand, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The worker, whose name was not made public by the government, arrived in the U.S. on New Year’s Eve to begin his new job at C.W. Hendrix Farms in Parkland, where vegetables awaited harvesting.
The next day, he was placing wooden stakes in the ground to support bell pepper plants. Struggling to keep pace with more experienced farmworkers, he complained of fatigue and leg pain as the area’s heat index neared 90 degrees, authorities said.
Sometime later, co-workers found him unresponsive in a shallow drainage ditch. Like several co-workers, the man experienced symptoms related to heat illness, according to OSHA.
An OSHA investigation determined that Rafael Barajas, the Okeechobee farm labor contractor who hired the farmworker, could have prevented his death by following established safety practices regarding heat-related hazards, authorities said.
“The first day of 2023 was this young worker’s last because his employer failed to take simple steps to protect him from heat exposure, a known and dangerous hazard,” said OSHA Area Office Director Condell Eastmond. “Had Rafael Barajas made sure workers were given time to get used to working in high temperatures and provided them with water, shade and rest, the worker might not have lost his life.”
OSHA cited Barajas for one serious violation for exposing workers to hazards associated with high ambient heat while working in direct sunlight. The contractor faces $15,625 in proposed penalties, an amount set by federal statute.
The company has 15 business days from receipt of their citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, authorities said.
As temperatures continue to rise across the U.S., heat illness is a growing workplace safety and health concern, according to OSHA. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that environmental heat exposure claimed the lives of 36 workers in 2021.
From 2011 through 2021, an average of 43 workers died due to environmental heat, records show. Gauging the actual number of fatalities related to heat illness can be difficult as other causes of death are sometimes cited when heat illness is involved.
OSHA, along with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, offers a heat safety tool for smartphones that allows users to calculate the heat index on their work site and determine the risk level to outdoor workers and take protective measures.
- Kevin Deutsch is an award-winning crime journalist and author. A graduate of Florida International University, Kevin has worked on staff at The Miami Herald, New York Daily News, and The Palm Beach Post.
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