New bill pushes California to stock, distribute masks to farmworkers during wildfires

A farmworker in Watsonville.
A farmworker holds a box of strawberries with his left hand and a one wheel cart with his right as he walks to get another empty box in Watsonville.

“That starts in the field,” he said. “If we’re going to make sure we’re going to maintain a viable and productive state agriculturally, it begins with having a healthy workforce.”

State Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) wants the state to acquire a stockpile of N-95 masks and set up a strike team to distribute them to farmworkers when they continue to work under dangerous conditions during wildfires in order to keep the country fed.

Although Assembly Bill 73 has no funding attached, Rivas said he and his co-authors — Assembly members Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) — designed the bill in such a way that it minimized costs and drew on existing practices.

This past season, farmworkers in Watsonville and other agricultural zones continued to work the fields in order to minimize the disruption to the produce supply chain feeding American families.

Many farmworkers cannot shelter indoors during unhealthy air quality events such as wildfires, leaving them at a greater risk for exposure to wildfire smoke, ash, and chemical residue, both during an active fire and during cleanup and recovery.

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Breathing fine particles during wildfires can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and cause difficulty with breathing. According to the Center for Disease Control, exposure to wildfire smoke can also prevent a person from fighting off COVID-19.

By providing a steady supply of face masks to farmworkers, Rivas hopes to help stabilize the health of the ag workforce, which, he said, would help keep the supply of produce running steadily as well.

“As a state, we’ve gone through the worst wildfire season in the state history where the air quality is very poor and a threat to their health,” Rivas said. “What do they do? They show up to work because they have to. Their paycheck is their livelihood and they don’t have any other choice.”

With this bill, Rivas looks to build on the work that has already been done by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which rolled out standards in 2019 protecting outdoor workers exposed to wildfire smoke.

Cal/OSHA’s standards require employers to provide respiratory protection equipment when the air quality reaches a certain level. However, the pandemic interrupted the mask supply chain and many employers reported that there are not enough N-95 masks to go around.

“This is our attempt to strengthen and clarify those regulations,” Rivas said.

To streamline costs while addressing issues across varying parts of the state, Rivas said strike teams called for in AB 73 would be composed of existing Cal/OSHA employees, and the education portion of the bill comes straight from AB 2043, a farmworker protections bill Rivas authored in the spring.

Furthermore, systems for stockpiling masks are already in place, given what healthcare facilities have had to do since the pandemic began.

Rivas and his co-authors are working with colleagues to ensure they can minimize costs, as legislators are tasked with a huge amount of work this year while funding is scarce on the ground, Rivas said.

“That starts in the field,” he said. “If we’re going to make sure we’re going to maintain a viable and productive state agriculturally, it begins with having a healthy workforce.”

What AB 73 will do:

  • Require immediate deployment of specialized strike teams from each Cal/OSHA each regional office during major unhealthy air quality events. These teams shall be composed of existing department employees who will provide technical assistance and ensure workers are adequately protected.
  • Require the Department of Industrial Relations, in coordination with other state agencies, to establish a stockpile of N-95 masks that can be distributed to farmers during a wildfire outbreak.
  • Require Cal/OSHA to develop and distribute information on wildfire safety to agriculture employees in both Spanish and English.