Elidio Hernández Gomez was working on a California farm during an August 2023 heatwave. When he collapsed and died, the coroner called it a heart attack. His family and others claim it was heat illness.
The United Farm Workers (UFW) union sided with the family, arguing that Hernandez died because of the extreme heat.
“Elidio Hernández should not have died,” UFW president Teresa Romero told CalMatters. “Elidio had two young daughters who now don’t have a father.”
Family, co-workers fear retaliation if they speak out
The 59-year-old worker reported to a supervisor that he was feeling sick but didn’t receive any help, according to Romero. When he collapsed, the incident wasn’t reported, but his co-workers were told to take him to a hospital. The employer hasn’t been identified.
Temperatures in the Fresno area on Aug. 8, the day of the incident, was around 100 degrees.
The coroner’s report claimed “Hernández Gómez’s death was due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, which is when cholesterol plaque builds up in arteries, obstructing blood flow.”
A spokesperson for the Fresno County Coroner’s office told CalMatters that there was no evidence showing that heat played a role in the death.
Romero said the union and the UFW Foundation are assisting the family but family members and co-workers fear retaliation if they speak out.
Despite state heat standard, deaths ‘historically undercounted’
Heat-related deaths are historically undercounted in California, despite the state’s heat illness safety standard, since many heat-related deaths are recorded as heart failure, strokes or respiratory failure, according to The Fresno Bee.
The Bee stated that a Los Angeles Times investigative report said the true number of heat-related deaths could be as much as six times the state’s official count.
As of Aug. 21, 2023, Cal/OSHA hasn’t received a report of Hernández Gómez’s, CalMatters said. The state safety agency said it was still gathering facts to determine if the incident warrants an inspection.
Proposed bill would require federal OSHA to create heat standard
California is one of five states nationwide with a heat-illness prevention standard. That standard is considered “best practice” by union leaders and safety experts.
“I’m glad that the state of California is actually a leader in this space,” U.S. Senator Alex Padilla of California said, according to Bakersfield.com. “But we need them on the federal level because workers across the country deserve the same protections.”
Padilla, a Democrat, was one of several lawmakers who re-introduced the Asunción Valdivia Heat, Illness, Injury and Fatality Prevention Act, which if passed, would require federal OSHA to create a nationwide heat standard for all workers in high heat environments.
That bill would require employers to provide access to cool water and shade, paid breaks and medical services, and training on heat-related illnesses, just as the Cal/OSHA standard does.
The re-introduced bill “recently went to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. It has 18 cosponsors in the Senate and 35 in the House of Representatives,” CalMatters states.
‘Law on the books not the same as law in the fields’
Enforcement is also included in the bill, Bakersfield.com states, through regular inspections, penalties and violations, something that some industry workers believe is currently missing even in California.
Romero, the UFW president, acknowledged that California’s outdoor heat standard has saved lives. However, she added that employers have to know there will be legal consequences if they don’t take action when their employees show signs of heat illness.
“The law on the books is not the same as the law in the fields,” she said.