While temperatures were breaking records in California last week — reaching as high as 107 degrees in King City on the Central Coast — as many as 400,000 farmworkers were picking strawberries, stone fruit, and melons, trimming table grapes, and engaging in myriad tasks to keep the nation’s number one agricultural producer in business. They labored under punishingly hot sun for eight to ten hour shifts, paid by individual tasks rather than by the hour.
When it comes to hazardous working conditions on American farms, many people think of pesticide exposure; as early as the 1960s, farmworkers were ringing alarm bells about it. But heat stress has actually surpassed pesticides — which cause cumulative harm over time — as the most immediate lethal danger in the fields, according to Dr. Marc Schenker, distinguished professor of public health sciences and medicine at University of California Davis. “We don’t see acute deaths from pesticide poisoning anymore,” says Schenker (though pesticides are still recognized as a significant danger with severe health risks for people exposed to them).
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An estimated 2.5 million farmworkers across the United States endure dangerously hot conditions on the job. As the heat climbs, workers can start to develop symptoms of heat stress including dizziness, nausea, fainting, vomiting, fatigue, poor coordination, and seizures. As their organs, especially their kidneys, start to break down, they can fall into a coma and die if not treated. Between 1992 and 2006, 68 farmworker deaths attributed to heat exposure were reported. Limited access to more current data makes it challenging to uncover the depth of the problem, though advocates claim deaths are likely underreported.
Outdoor temperatures aren’t the only issue. Personal protective equipment, ranging from suffocating Tyvek suits worn for pesticide application to thick trousers and heavy boots for working around thorny plants, can add to farmworkers’ misery.
“In workers, the major producer of body heat is metabolic workload,” explained Schenker. “If you’re working in outdoor conditions, you’re generating the majority of body heat from metabolism. The simple prevention is to reduce workload.” The piecework rate of payment for farmworkers, in which people are paid by the pound rather than by the hour, is a recipe for working as hard and as fast as possible. The system is great for employers, but bad for workers.
Access to drinking water, shade, and rest can help workers manage their body temperatures in high heat conditions. But just two states, California and Washington, have laws that require sufficient shade structures and drinkable water be nearby to meet the needs of the work crew. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, in which companies like McDonald’s and Trader Joe’s pay a premium for more ethically-sourced tomatoes, also requires access to shade, drinking water, rest breaks, and hygiene facilities as part of its code of conduct. But even those requirements aren’t always enough.
In 2008, a 17-year-old pregnant farm worker died of heat-related illness because the drinking water was too far away, despite the fact that California’s heat protection law dated to 2005. Outcry led to enhanced safety regulations and better enforcement, but despite a dedicated heat violation hotline, improved data collection, and a push for better internal auditing to ensure complaints are investigated in a timely fashion, the problem persists.
Even if they have access to preventative care in the field, workers face another heat-related challenge when they go home: Farmworker housing may consist of crude shacks operated by farmers or contracting companies, or hot trailers with no air conditioning. Leydy Rengel of the United Farm Workers Foundation recalls the extreme heat of the Coachella Valley beating down on the trailer she shared with her parents, both farmworkers, as a child: “My parents would come home after 10-hour shifts, and didn’t have a place to cool down.” This can be dangerous, said Schenker: “Nighttime cooling is an important factor in preventing heat stress illness.”
While the short-term implications of heat-related illnesses are well understood, not as much is known about what they mean for people in the long term. Schenker is researching this subject, with a particular interest in what happens if workers experience repeated incidents of acute kidney injury, a potential complication of heat stress. This is especially vital since climate change is making conditions for farmworkers even worse.
California’s most recent climate assessment warned that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, the state’s average daily high temperature could be as much as 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher from 2070-2100 than it is today. Over that same period, the annual number of extreme heat days (over 103.9 degrees) could rise from four to twenty-four. The amount of land scorched in wildfires will increase 77 percent.
In California, the law protecting workers from the effects of high temperatures is clear, but enforcement has been erratic. The UFW Foundation was one of the entities that pushed the state to issue more clarity and direction to keep farms — and the contract companies that supply a large number of farmworkers — accountable. Schenker, who has spent years researching farmworkers, said “California really does lead the nation,” but what that can look like from farm to farm is highly variable.
During the recent high heat event, the UFW Foundation ran an awareness campaign encouraging people to report unsafe conditions and setting up tables at locations farmworkers frequent to educate them about their rights. Rangel said even with the promise of anonymity, workers were reluctant to report. “They’re rather just be quiet,” she said, especially when they’re undocumented. And when state officials may take days to respond, complaints don’t always lead to enforcement.
Outside California and Washington, the picture can be grim for farmworkers in high heat conditions. They have some protections under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but for farmworkers, especially undocumented people in isolated areas, knowledge of the law and the ability to ask for enforcement can be limited.
“Last year, there was a 24-year-old farmworker, an H2-A guest worker in Georgia, who had only been in the country for less than 10 days, and he suffered heat illness. Nobody paid attention, his employers were not informed of how to handle this. They thought he was just being lazy,” said Rangel. It wasn’t the first time an ill worker had died in similar circumstances.
As consumers grow more aware of concerns around farmworker health and safety — calling, for example, for restrictions on pesticide use and listening to farmworkers speak out about sexual abuse in the field — heat illness should be a more prominent topic of conversation. Just as hotter days and longer summers will affect the quality of crops, they’ll affect the quality of life for the people who cultivate and harvest them.