Farmworkers Face Outsized Heat Fatalities, States Must Work to Protect Their Health

Image:Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

Farmworkers in Florida have to work in “dangerously hot” heat for 116 days of the year, Sam Bloch reported in The Counter. These farmworkers, according to the CDC, are 20 times more likely to die from heat than other US civilians. Despite the high levels of fatalities farmworkers face in Florida each year, the state has refused to pass legislation designed to protect workers from the heat. Indeed, State Senator Victor Torres, according to the article in The Counter, has introduced heat illness prevention bills for the past three years. They have failed each time.

Why This Matters: This week, we reported on farmworkers’ lack of adequate legal and public health protections during the pandemic. But it is crucial to remember that farmworkers lacked basic public health protections long before the pandemic. A recent study demonstrated that on average, farmworkers in the US face 21 unsafe working days each summer. And, this number will only grow as human-induced climate change raises temperatures worldwide. Florida must follow states like California and Washington to protect people from working in excessive heat.

 

Horrible Conditions: According to OSHA, nine farmworkers in Florida “suffered severe and fatal injuries caused by the heat.” Many activists, Bloch says, posit the number is much higher. A recent study found that farmworkers in Florida “have a high burden of dehydration and experience adverse changes in kidney function during their workdays.” Another found that many had elevated core temperatures by the end of the day. This heat, coupled with lack of adequate protection measures, has resulted in the death of many farmworkers, including Procopio Magaña, who died last year of heatstroke.

Future Action Steps: Activists have long since advocated for a “heat standard” to help protect workers. This heat standard would need to “mandate lifesaving rest, shade, and water, as well as heat safety training.”  While this may not be, as Human Rights Watch has noted, a cure-all solution, it is an important step in improving the conditions of farmworkers in Florida.

This isn’t to say many in Florida haven’t been trying to do so– just last year, State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith introduced an illness protection bill which would have “required employers to maintain cool, shady areas for workers when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees, and allow employees at least a 15-minute break if they showed signs of heat illness,” among other important measures. This bill has failed two years in a row without a vote.

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