Deadly Heat Threatens America’s Farmers

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

USA Today reported that for thousands of farmworkers in the West, extreme heat is a deadly threat. Repeated exposure to temperatures above 100 degrees can cause dangerous heat stress in the human body resulting in heatstroke, death, or even exacerbated disease. Many farmworkers are immigrants without access to health insurance thus making heat a compound threat when treatment for heat stress is not readily available.

In response to this deadly extreme heat, organizers and politicians across the country are attempting to enact protections for farmworkers like paid breaks, cooling centers, and access to cold water.

Why This Matters: Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme heatwaves— one study suggests that climate change has made extreme temperatures at least 150 times more likely to occur. 

As CNN reported that most heat-related deaths occur among children and the elderly. In addition, people highly susceptible to heat-related complications include those with chronic health problems, especially respiratory problems. Prolonged exposure to heat can also lead to kidney disease, according to studies of farmworkers in Sri Lanka and Central America, some of the world’s hottest regions.  

But, even considering these dangers, just three states – California, Washington, and Minnesota – have permanent rules and regulations that protect farmworkers from extreme heat. Oregon’s latest heatwave claimed the life of 38-year-old farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez as he lacked access to protection from the heat and didn’t have access to paid time off.

Tragedy Strikes America’s Farmworkers: Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon’s largest farmworker union, is fighting for the state protect its farmers from extreme heat and smoke pollution from fires. Ira Cuello-Martinez, PCUN’s climate policy associate, told USA Today that wildfire smoke had gotten so bad it stung many workers’ eyes and made them unable to see, and that heat had made them so nauseous they couldn’t stop vomiting. These conditions have even resulted in the untimely deaths of many farmworkers. Though these workers worried about working in hazardous conditions, they didn’t feel like they had a choice.

  • In response to these tragedies, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, in conjunction with Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), announced emergency heat rules.
  • Washington also announced expanded heat exposure protections the following day.

But it may not be enough: neither state has rules that workers be sent home if temperatures reach a certain high, and Oregon’s emergency heat rules didn’t include provisions for smoke, which severely affects farmworkers during wildfires. Advocates are also fighting for disaster pay for farmworkers and rules about air conditioning in employer-provided housing. 

The time to act is now, Kristie Ebi, a professor at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington, told USA Today:  “I’m more concerned about the next decade or two than I am about the middle of the century. We are so unprepared. Temperatures will be higher midcentury, yes, and we’ll have even longer, more intense heat waves than we’re having now, and how intense will depend on our greenhouse gas emissions.”

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