Cal-OSHA investigating farmworker death

Cal-OSHA investigating farmworker death »Play Video
Juan Ochoa

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — The state is investigating the possible heat-related death of a farmworker who died Friday while working on an irrigation system in Richgrove in Tulare County.

Juan Ochoa, 37, and his brother, Alejandro Ochoa, were were working alone checking irrigation equipment in a lemon orchard owned by Etchegaray Farms about 4 miles east of Highway 65.  Alejandro Ochoa said he noticed his brother was fanning himself with his hat but thought nothing of it, as it was a hot day.  Eyewitness News meteorologist Miles Muzio said the temperature in the area was 105 to 106 degrees.

"We did not have shade or water provided by the company, " said Alejandro Ochoa on Monday.

The brothers were working six rows apart when Alejandro Ochoa looked around and did not see his brother. He then spotted him lying on the ground.

"When I saw him, I got scared and immediately ran to him," said Alejandro Ochoa.

But, Juan Ochoa was unresponsive. Alejandro Ochoa slapped his brother and yelled in an effort to revive him. There was no cellphone reception in the area. Alejandro Ochoa said he ran to his pickup truck, which he parked at least a mile away, and then drove to summon help.

Paramedics pronounced Alejandro dead at the scene, he said. The brothers started work that day at 6 a.m. and had been working for nine hours when the incident  happened. They normally get off around 4:30 p.m., said Alejandro.

According to California Division of Occupational Safety and Health spokesman Peter Melton, employers must provide water and shade to their employees and take special high-heat procedures when the temperature reaches at least 95 degrees.

"For supervisors, they should observe workers for signs of symptoms of heat illness, they should remind workers to drink water frequently and have an effective communication system in place to be able to summon emergency assistance if necessary," said Melton.

Etchegaray Farms has declined to comment on the matter. The Visalia-based company has had two accidents in the past five years, according to Cal-OSHA. In 2010, an employee at a facility in McFarland died after being struck in the head by a blade from a wind machine. The company was cited and fined $7,310. A settlement reduced the amount to $3,375. Another accident was in 2012 without any citations being issued against Etchegaray.

Juan Ochoa lived in Tulare County at a remote housing site near Richgrove. His family is planning on sending his body to Michoacan, Mexico, for burial. The family was joined by friends as they gathered Monday evening. 

"We want justice, not just for the family, but for everyone else," said Luis Ochoa, who is a cousin to Juan and Alejandro.

"It could be me maybe next time out there, or anybody else," he said.

An official cause of death is still pending.