Last month news broke that six California employers are facing state-imposed fines after a whistleblower reported that approximately ten construction workers required hospitalization for complications from valley fever. The sick employees were contracted to work on a large solar construction project in Monterey County. This development is especially disturbing considering the employers all signed a conditional work permit agreeing to comply with valley fever safety training and required precautions. Let’s take a closer look at this messy labor and employment law violation.
What is Valley Fever?
Valley fever (officially called Coccidioidomycosis) is a serious respiratory disease that originates from a fungus that grows in soil. When their soil habitat is disturbed, the spores become airborne and can be inhaled. People who inhale the spores may experience a wide range of ailments, from minor cold and flu-like symptoms to lifetime respiratory issues and in the rarest of cases, even death. One of the most common symptoms — extreme exhaustion — frequently lasts for months.
Coccidioidomycosis spores are common in desert climates across the southwest region of the country. They are especially prevalent and problem-causing in California’s central coast and central valley areas.
A Well-Known Risk
Because of the prevalence of valley fever in our state, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) requires construction companies to adhere to strict safety guidelines to reduce the risk of valley fever exposure. They are supposed to educate their employees about the dangers of valley fever, as well as how to prevent inhalation. Effective methods include wetting soil before disrupting it, staying upwind of disturbed soil, wearing respirator masks, and using enclosed, air-conditioned equipment with air filtration.
Dangerous Violations & Exposure
McCarthy Building Companies Inc. and five subcontractors have been working on the California Flats Solar Project in the Cholame Hills. Though only nine employees have been hospitalized so far, it’s highly likely that hundreds were exposed to the disease. One of the subcontractors, Papich Construction, was previously fined in 2013 for the same reason. In all, the six companies are responsible for $240,000 in fines.
The True Cost of Valley Fever
Experts at USC’s Center for Health Journalism Collaborative estimate that the cost for a single valley fever workers’ compensation claim averages $60,000, but it is not uncommon for that cost to skyrocket into the millions in extreme cases. Government-funded healthcare programs spent approximately $1.4 billion between 2000 and 2011 treating valley fever cases alone.
Know Your Rights & Get Help
If you are a construction worker in an area where valley fever is present, be sure to look out for yourself and hold your employer accountable for your safety. You are entitled to workplace training and personal equipment that minimizes your risk of exposure.