Food Safety Rules and Worker Rehydration:
Addressing the Conflict in Cantaloupe and Watermelon Harvesting
By Sarah B. Horton
Associate Professorof Anthropology
University of Colorado, Denver
A Report to Cal-OSHA
Submitted Monday, August 15, 2016
Summary: The Problem
To comply with food safety certifications required by major retailers and restaurant chains, cantaloupe and watermelon harvesting companies prohibit workers from bringing their own personal water supplies into the field. Companies do provide company-authorized 10-gallon Igloo jugs in select designated spaces on the farm equipment. However, workers report that their placement makes them inaccessible to many workers. As I describe below, cantaloupe and mini-watermelon harvesting utilizes a field-harvesting machine on which company-provided Igloo jugs are stored in three places. This makes them inaccessible to all but the pickers, leaving between 11 and 15 workers without easy access to water, depending on the size of the team. Meanwhile, in the harvest of medium and jumbo watermelon, the company-provided water jug is stored underneath the end of the trailer/container on which watermelon packers store the watermelon. This makes it inaccessible to all workers unless there is a pause in the pace of production. Finally, workers in both crops reported barriers in accessing shade.
This report is based on the following data sources: observation of cantaloupe and mini-watermelon harvesting in 2013; interviews with seven cantaloupe and three watermelon harvesters about company policies and obstacles to rehydrating in 2013 and 2014; interviews with three food safety supervisors in three different companies and two officials within the USDA (one in the Agricultural Marketing Service and the other in the Audit Services branch); and attendance at a webinar offered by a consultant trained in Produce GAP Harmonized Food Safety Standards and qualified as a USDA internal auditor on food safety. In addition, to understand current company policies and barriers workers experience to drinking while harvesting, I interviewed 11 workers—seven total in cantaloupe (including one labor supervisor) and four in watermelon harvesting conducted in June and July of 2016. The seven cantaloupe workers came from six different crews who work for two different companies, and the four watermelon harvesters came from four different crews working for three different companies. Interviews and observations were conducted in Mendota, a farmworking community of 11,420 people in western Fresno County, where the first author has conducted fieldwork for a decade.
I. Barriers to Rehydration
A. Cantaloupe and Mini-Watermelon Harvesting
To understand how company food safety rules place workers at risk of dehydration and heat illness, we must first understand the composition of cantaloupe/mini-watermelon harvesting crews. The harvesting of both cantaloupe and mini-watermelon is performed using a field-packing machine pulled by a trailer where two stackers stack boxes of melon into pallets; the trailer itself is pulled by a tractor. Cantaloupe crews typically contain 21 workers. There are typically 8-9 pickers (piscadores) in the field, picking melon and throwing it onto a shelf on the field-packing machine for the packers. On the field-packing machine itself, there are typically 7-8 employees who pack watermelon into cardboard cartons, close them, and push them down the assembly line towards the trailer where they are stacked and stored. Two “shovers” (esquivadores) work in between the field-packing machine and the trailer, sending the boxes down the chute to 2-3 “stackers” (cargadores) who stack boxes of cantaloupe into pallets and then stack the pallets into columns nearly seven feet high.
Meanwhile, mini-watermelon harvesting crews typically contain 19 workers. Because mini-watermelon ripens quickly and can easily spoil, most companies pay workers by contract in order to quickly clear the field of the ripe fruit. Contract work typically requires a greater number of workers atop the farm machinery—packers, box makers, “pushers” (empuchadores), and stackers—in order to cope with the greater volume of fruit processed in a shorter period of time. Therefore, mini-watermelon harvesting crews typically contain 4 pickers working on the ground, 10 workers on the field-packing machine, and four employees (2 pushers, 2 stackers) on the trailer itself.
In both cantaloupe and mini-watermelon harvesting, two company-supplied 10-gallon Igloos, or water jugs, are stored underneath the back of the field-packing machine next to a stack of 4-ounce conical cups. The jugs are tucked underneath the machine within reach of the pickers who trail it. A third Igloo rides on the other side of the machine, above the heads of the packers, and on the other side of the rail that separates those on the machine from the shovers or pushers. An analysis of the process of harvesting and the location of the company-supplied water shows that the workers who face the greatest obstacles to accessing water include: all employees on the trailer itself (the box-makers, packers, sticker placers, and closers), and the shovers or pushers and stackers (who labor on the trailer, the furthest from any company-provided water source).
Workers reported that the placement of company-provided water sources on the field-harvesting machine made it difficult for all but the pickers to drink while the machine was in motion. For example, one worker for in the cantaloupe harvest reported that for a stacker to drink, the second stacker would have to cover for the other while the former ran to the front of the machine to drink water from the paper cups. “While the machine is in motion, they would have to jump to the ground and have to run to the front of the machine to drink water.” Similarly, a mini-watermelon packer explained that to access the jugs of water—on the other side of the railing—packers would have to leave their post to jump into the fields—“and the mayordomo will yell at you if you do,” she said. Indeed, workers reported that supervisors were rarely willing to halt the tractor and field-packing machine to allow them to drink because this would interfere with the pace of production. A cantaloupe picker on a different team for the same company above explained that the mayordomo would be concerned not to slow the pace of production. “Because if the mayordomo stops, the mayordomo’s supervisor will come and say: ‘And why did you stop?’” To be able to drink, workers in the past had tried to hide their own water sources on the machines; stackers and packers reported bringing their own water supplies and hiding them under boxes. However, as companies began imposing penalties on supervisors who tolerated such practices, workers reported that they had stopped hiding their own water sources as of 2016.
B. Medium and Jumbo Watermelon Harvesting
The process of harvesting medium-sized and jumbo watermelons does not utilize a field-packing machine. In the harvesting of jumbos, a crew of cutters will first enter a field of ripe watermelons to sever the fruit from their stems. Then the harvesting crew enters, picking up the cut melons and bouncing them on their way up the line of harvesters like professional jugglers. They start with a “pitcher” (pichador), who picks up the severed melon and tosses it to the next man in the line, a “bouncer,” who bounces it to the next without catching it. To expedite production, medium and jumbo watermelon harvesters keep the melon in motion, never letting it settle on its way to its resting place in the bins on the trailers.
In jumbo harvesting, there are typically two pitchers, three bouncers, and three packers who ride on the trailer and are responsible for settling melon bounced up the line into a container or a trailer with large bins. Medium watermelon-harvesting crews have more pitchers and bouncers to accommodate the greater volume of fruit. The workers stand in furrows of melon that run parallel to the tracks where the trailers/containers move up the field and bounce the melon in a line perpendicular to the movement of the trailer. They start filling the back of the trailer and slowly move towards the front of the trailer as they fill it.
In jumbo and medium-sized watermelon harvesting, one ten-gallon jug of water hangs from the back of the last trailer. Because the jug of water rides underneath the trailer’s end, and crew members slowly move up the length of the trailer, it is difficult for crew members to drink water without breaking the pace of production. In watermelon harvesting, then, the ability to rehydrate is determined by how quickly workers fill up the trailers and whether the workers are being paid by contract or by hour.
When watermelon harvesters work by contract, they rarely stop to rehydrate because it would disrupt the pace of harvesting. There is sometimes a tractor-driver waiting at the end of the field with a new trailer once the previous one has been filled in order to maintain a continuous rate of production. In addition, it is common for mayordomos to ask workers harvesting by contract if they wish to forego their mandated 30-minute lunch and two 10-minute breaks in order to meet production quotas and “go home earlier.” (Under California labor law, workers were allowed to skip breaks if their employers are not “encouraging or forcing” them to do so until revision of the heat illness prevention regulation mandated 10 minute recovery periods for agricultural workers whenever the temperature reaches or exceeds 95 F. However, based on my research, the recovery period requirements now mandated by the heat illness prevention regulation rarely followed.)
A packer harvesting mini-watermelons on contract, for example, said that the crew routinely forewent breaks during the course of a workday and that it was often difficult for the packers and stackers to rehydrate as a result. In fact, she reported that a young man died in this company during a heat wave in Fresno County on July 2, 2013, and that his family sued the company for not granting its workers their mandated breaks. (The OSHA website confirms that a man died in this company on July 2 but does not mention the lack of breaks that day). She reported that the following year—in 2014—this company granted its workers one 10-minute break each day, but that they had discontinued this practice by the summer of 2016. Occupational health specialists suggest that the contract payment system—and skipping breaks—may contribute to heat illness among farmworkers. Indeed, four of six job-related deaths of farmworkers under investigation in the summer of 2008 were in jobs paying piece-rate (Ferriss 2008).
Because crews harvesting by contract rarely take breaks, filling up the trailer provides them a rare opportunity to access water sources. This packer of mini-watermelon reported that mini-watermelon harvesters filled between 3-7 trailers of fruit a day and had an opportunity to take a break of 5-10 minutes after they waited for each trailer to be hauled to the cooling shed. Meanwhile, a man harvesting jumbo watermelons by the hour said that the crew frequently filled up 18 trailers of watermelon in a 10-hour day, allowing them to stop and drink water roughly once every forty minutes. Because medium and jumbo-sized watermelon harvesters are confined to water sources underneath the trailers/containers where packers store watermelon, filling up a trailer provides them a brief break in which they can access water sources outside the harvest area—that is, at the edge of the field.
II. Barriers to Accessing Shade
In the harvesting of cantaloupe and watermelon, workers not only faced barriers to accessing water but also barriers to accessing shade. These barriers depend on the process of production in each crop. In cantaloupe and mini-watermelon harvesting, stackers face particular barriers to accessing shade. Meanwhile, all harvesters of medium and jumbo watermelons face a high risk of heatstroke because there is no field-packing machine with a protective canopy to shade some workers.
In cantaloupe and mini-watermelon harvesting, a canopy above the field-packing machine provides workers on the machine itself—packers, closers, sticker placers, and box makers—with protection from direct sunlight. Stackers, in contrast, work on a metal trailer that lacks a protective canopy. They also perform the heaviest job; their job is to lift boxes of melon into wooden pallets and then stack the pallets into columns more than seven feet high. Each trailer can accommodate 736 cartons of cantaloupe. Stackers’ extra compensation—usually at 50 cents more each hour, and an extra half an hour’s pay a day—is meant to compensate them for such hard labor. Thus even as they face barriers to rehydrating along with all workers atop the field-packing machine in cantaloupe/mini-watermelon harvesting, stackers’ lack of access to shade presents them with a greater risk of heat exhaustion.
Cantaloupe and watermelon harvesting companies can adopt some simple changes to assure Cal-OSHA that they are complying with recommendations to provide workers with accessible water and shade.
Section 3395c of the heat illness regulation stipulates that water “be located as close as practicable to the areas where employees are working” and that the “frequent drinking of water… shall be encouraged. To make water accessible to all workers in the cantaloupe/mini-watermelon, the field-packing machines can be outfitted with an additional metal brace to stabilize an Igloo jug that would be accessible to those who work atop the machine. The trailer where the stackers work can be modified in the same manner as the field-packing machine (or the trailers in jumbo watermelon harvesting) so that an Igloo jug can be placed under one side of the trailer.
Similarly, the trailers and containers used to store medium and jumbo-sized watermelon can be retrofitted to accommodate water jugs on its sides rather than only on the back. These changes to the machinery are important as they are permanent, whereas supervisors’ and companies’ decisions to honor the heat illness standard’s requirement that workers receive 10-minute breaks every two hours in high heat conditions may vary from season to season.
In addition, contract work poses a particular barrier to workers’ ability to rehydrate in the watermelon harvest because workers working by contract routinely forego breaks. Assembly Bill 1513– which went into effect on January 1, 2016—is intended to encourage piece-rate workers to take breaks by mandating that employers compensate workers for “nonproductive time” (that is, breaks) at a rate that is no less than the “average hourly rate.” This should create an incentive for farmworkers to take a break even when they are being paid by the contract rate, as they will be compensated for their break at the same rate. As of July of this year, however, no workers nor supervisors reported being aware of the new law. Moreover, only workers harvesting jumbo watermelon for one company reported that the company followed the new heat illness prevention regulation that mandates 10 minute recovery periods for agricultural workers whenever the temperature reaches or exceeds 95 F. Disseminating information about these changes in the heat illness standard and the new law—and enforcing them—will help mitigate the deleterious effect that contract work appears to have on farmworkers’ health.
Section 3395c of the heat illness regulation stipulates that shade “be located as close as practicable” to workers. Where possible, the farm equipment—such as the trailers where the cantaloupe is stacked and the trailers/containers where watermelons are stored—should be outfitted with canopies. Videos of watermelon harvesting on Youtube show that at least one large company in Georgia uses retrofitted school buses with a canopy providing packers with shade (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4jMeBJSZQU). Providing this kind of canopy will help reduce the considerable risk of heat illness among stackers and watermelon harvesters, who both have physically strenuous jobs.
In sum, Cal-OSHA should open dialogue with the produce industry about the conflict that food safety rules are creating with the state’s emphasis on worker rehydration and conduct some targeted inspections. Minor modifications to the farm equipment and work practices will help reduce the risk of dehydration and heat illness among California’s melon harvesters.