By Farmworker Justice
The last few years have been the hottest on record, and scientists predict that temperatures will continue to climb. These high temperatures put farmworkers at increased risk for heat related illnesses, including heat stress and heat stroke. Heat related illnesses occurs when the body is subjected to and/or produces more heat than it can dissipate due to ambient environmental factors or to physical activity, and can be exacerbated by existing medical conditions or other individual factors. The resulting increase in core body temperature can lead to dehydration, fatigue, and if permitted to continue, to neurological impairment, multi‐organ failure, and eventually death. Additionally, heat stress impairs an individual’s judgment, so he or she may have trouble recognizing or communicating heat illness symptoms before it is too late.
Farmworkers face unique challenges due to the nature of their work, which often takes place during the warmest season in a region. Farmworkers are vulnerable to higher heat indexes from combined heat and humidity. Workers are often exposed to direct sunlight and high humidity for long periods of time with few breaks or access to water. Without proper care, workers can experience heat related illnesses as they continue to labor under these conditions. Another challenge comes from elevated pesticide use. According to a report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the heat will lead to increased pesticide violations when more pesticide applied will turn to vapor, so growers will need to apply more pesticide to get the same effect as today’s levels. As temperatures continue to rise, the presence of pests will increase, which leads to increased pesticide applications. Farmworkers often use long-sleeved clothing or protective equipment to mitigate pesticide exposure. But these same measures can also raise the workers’ core body temperatures and put them at increased risk for heat related illnesses. Preventing heat stress and heat stroke can be accomplished through basic measures such as providing workers with shade, breaks, and drinking water. Shade provides a cooler spot to lower the core body temperature so that the workers do not overheat. Similarly, frequent breaks, even short ones, can be helpful in diminishing farmworkers’ risk of heat illnesses. Finally, workers should have clean and accessible drinking water available. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the recommended minimum amount per worker is 6 to 10 quarts per day. The water should be kept at a reasonably cool temperature. Additionally, individual or single use cups should be supplied for hygienic purposes.
At the federal policy level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hasn’t implemented a heat stress standard for workers. In response, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) and Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), introduced the “Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2019,” H.R. 3668. The bill seeks to address safety and health concerns in relation to excessive heat exposure by requiring OSHA to create and enforce standards to prevent and mitigate heat illness risks for workers. Farmworker Justice supports this bill.
Farmworker Justice has a variety of resources on heat illness available, designed for farmworker-serving organizations and promotora (community health worker) programs including a training curriculum, These materials were created through funding provided by OSHA’s Susan Harwood program. FJ joined Public Citizen and the UFW, along with a coalition of over 200 individuals and groups, in filing a petition to OSHA in 2018 asking for a federal standard to protect workers from heat stress. OSHA has not yet responded to the petition. FJ is committed to improving farmworkers’ working conditions through legislation and regulations addressing the threat of heat illness and heat stroke.
Farmworkers are at heightened risk as the planet continues to warm while they labor in the fields to feed us all. Farmworker Justice is committed to continuing to work on this important issue to make sure there are adequate protections in place to face this growing threat.