The climate crisis is endangering farmworkers around the US who work outside in excessive heat throughout the year without any federal protections from heat exposure in the workplace. The state of Washington recently announced emergency rules to provide heat protection for farmworkers and other outdoor workers, shortly after Oregon issued emergency rules in the wake of a farmworker who died from heat exposure during record high temperatures in the region. California and Minnesota are the only two other states in the US with heat protections for workers, though Colorado has some limited protections.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 53 workers died in the US due to temperature extremes in 2019, and the climate crisis is creating more hazardous conditions for workers, as temperature extremes become more common. Heat stress can cause kidney issues and worsen pre-existing conditions such as asthma and heart disease, as well as cause sudden death on the job. According to CDC data, farmworkers are 20 times more likely to die from heat-related causes than other workers.
Said Tere Cruz, a farm worker for 15 years in Immokalee, Florida, “The first thing in the morning, you don’t feel it as much but then after 11am your body really starts to feel the heat. You feel like all the energy has been sucked out of you and it’s really hard to keep going.’’ Cruz explained workers often will get too hot and vomit from drinking too much water too fast, but they face immense pressure to continue working through heat stress.
An analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Washington in March 2020 found US farmworkers will experience an increase from about 21 days of working in unsafe temperatures per season to an average of 62 days by the end of the century – nearly three times as many. Heatwaves have also become more common and intense over the past several decades, as the US west coast has experienced record-breaking heatwaves this year.
“It’s extremely hot out there and it’s getting worse every year,” said Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida. “One of the biggest problems is the way that farmworkers are paid. When they’re paid by the piece rate, that encourages workers to exert themselves even more. When they’re part of a crew, the person who slows down because he has to take a water break or use the restroom, then they become the guy who slows down the crew.”
Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), said the organization had been demanding Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) issue heat protection rules ahead of the latest heatwaves in the region. Workers had been expressing concerns about the lack of shade or water while working through blueberry and cherry harvesting.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice that happens from immigrant workers for us to have food on our table,” said Lopez. “We believe fully that any kind of death on the job is absolutely avoidable. This is the first recorded death in Oregon’s Osha fatalities report that’s specific to farm labor and heat.”
Farmworkers and several organizations have been advocating for Osha to enact federal heat safety standards to guarantee basic protections for workers, including adequate shade, water and rest breaks. Advocacy efforts have also pressured states to enact standards and bills have been introduced to Congress to grant workers federal heat protections.