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Honoring Farmworkers Amid Rising Temperatures

As we conclude the 19th annual National Farmworker Awareness Week, March 24 – 31, consumers owe it the workers who grow our food to educate ourselves about their working conditions. An incredible 85 percent of our fruits and vegetables are handpicked, and the U.S. has an estimated two to three million farmworkers, including children. In honor of these workers and to raise awareness around their daily hardships, Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) highlighted a different farmworker’s story for each day of the week. Their theme for today, Sun Up to Sun Down, embodies a significant and growing threat faced by farmworkers – occupational heat stress.

No one is immune to extreme heat, however, farmworkers are disproportionally impacted due to their long hours spent outside with limited access to shade. In the U.S., farm work is the third most dangerous job, and tragically farmworkers account for more than a fifth of heat-related deaths.  As SAF’s worker narratives remind us, there are lives and families behind these statistics. In the words of one farmworker interviewed –

“Life here is very hard when we harvest fruits and vegetables. The sun burns so much and we get weak, and you get irritated from so much heat. And despite that we have to work all day putting up with the fatigue, dehydration and hunger. I’ll also tell you that it’s very sad to be far from our land which is Mexico… and our loved ones like my parents, my wife and my son. But we’re here working hard so that we can support our family… and well, it’s very hard to be a farmworker, and sad because you work from sun up to sundown in the fields.”

In addition to the strenuous working conditions, farmworkers have fewer legal rights compared to most of the labor force. They are in danger of termination or even the threat of deportation if they blow the whistle on unsafe working conditions. And yet, the dangers from heat stress are often irreversible.

Heat exhaustion can be deadly, causing heat strokes and heart attacks, and it can exacerbate existing health problems such as asthma. Despite common-sense preventative solutions – hydration, shade, and rest breaks – at this time there are no national protections in place to regulate and prevent occupational heat stress. This gaping hole has not gone unnoticed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which in 2016 issued its third recommendation for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to implement a robust heat stress standard.

Occupational heat-related injuries will grow more severe in the coming years as climate change continues to progress, placing farmworkers at greater risk. NOAA has projected that we will lose up to 50 percent of summer labor capacity by 2100 if we don’t reverse course on carbon pollution emissions. This requires bold actions to tackle climate change while preparing for rising temperatures.

Despite inaction at the federal level, the U.S. Military, California, Minnesota and Washington have instituted occupational heat stress standards. Although they fall short of the NIOSH recommendations, they demonstrate the feasibility of such regulations at the state and federal levels. Further, partnerships between farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies have helped to prevent occupational dangers through voluntary initiatives such as the Fair Food Program, which requires participating growers to provide workers with protections from heat, among other measures. These are significant steps, but without a national heat stress standard, millions of farmworkers will remain vulnerable to heat-related injuries and death.

Fortunately, we can be a part of the solution. As National Farmworker Awareness Week concludes and we prepare for Workers’ Memorial Week in April, let’s be more mindful about the conditions under which farmworkers labor to nourish us, and use our consumer power to demand fair working conditions by shopping at locations that source responsibly.

To take additional action in support of farmworkers, visit United Farm Workers, Farmworker Justice, Student Action with Farmworkers, FLOC, and National Farm Worker Ministry. This is not an exhaustive list of organizations with related advocacy, as state and local groups are also working across the country to strengthen working conditions for farm workers.

To learn more about the risks of heat stress and to add your organization to Public Citizen’s heat stress network, please contact Worker Health and Safety Advocate Shanna Devine or Climate Program Director David Arkush.