It’s National Heat Awareness Day—Let’s Protect Farmworkers from Extreme Heat

May 30, 2019 | 8:14 pm
Holger Hubbs
Rafter Ferguson
Former Contributor

The last Friday in May is National Heat Awareness Day. For those of us in parts of the country where summer has already arrived like a sack of bricks, you might be thinking “Don’t remind me!” I know that here in DC, my short morning commute is starting to feel like a steamy tropical hike.

But I know I’m lucky. I still remember what it’s like to have a commute that doesn’t end in an air-conditioned office. And honestly, I was lucky even back when I was working in construction. I could often work in the shade, and because I worked for a responsible employer, I could also count on access to water and regular rest breaks. So when I arrive at this air-conditioned oasis where I research food and farming issues, my thoughts go to the 2-3 million people growing our food whose workplace is a farm field. Like warehouse workers, construction workers, and many others, farmworkers can’t count on regular access to water, rest breaks, and shade—much less climate control.

Working in hot conditions isn’t just difficult—it’s dangerous. And in the absence of AC, it’s these three things: water, rest, and shade, that are the keys to avoiding heat-related injury. That’s why the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) are joining forces to remind employers to provide water, rest, and shade for their employees.

But experience shows that—however welcome those reminders—workers need legal protection, not just helpful suggestions. As with other climate impacts, it’s people without economic and political power—like farmworkers—that are hit first and hardest by dangerous heat. Unfortunately, there are no heat-related worker protection standards at the Federal level. While workers are theoretically protected by general duty standards that require employers to maintain a safe workplace, the lack of any heat-specific standards renders this protection vague, weak, and difficult to enforce.

This lack standards for heat is shocking given that we know heat is a killer both on and off the job. Heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the US (and many countries around the world). The national Weather Service just released their Natural Hazard Statistics for 2018, and heat killed more people last year than lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes, cold, and winter weather combined. At work, heat was responsible for the death of 815 workers and serious injury to more than 70,000 between 1992 and 2017.

I was lucky, but you shouldn’t have to be lucky to be protected against injury at work. No occupation better illustrates the need for protection than farm labor. Despite being the foundation of our food system, farmworkers have less protection from exploitation and abuse than other workers. They can’t count on having responsible employers and safe working conditions, and it shows:  Farmworkers die from heat at a mind-boggling 20 times the rate of the general population (and that’s without factoring the under-reporting of heat-related mortality and farmworker mortality in general). Hours before I arrive in my comfortable office, they are in the field doing one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs our country has to offer, in order to produce the food we all eat.

Thanks to climate change, the need for strong protection is only becoming more urgent. Danger from extreme heat is on the rise everywhere, and heat-related deaths are expected to increase in the coming decades.  Last summer saw a record-breaking and dangerous heat wave across much of the Northern Hemisphere. The first half of this year has already brought unprecedented lethal heat in India, Vietnam, and Australia.

Fortunately, the need for change is not going unrecognized. A national coalition of organizations is calling for OSHA to issue a National Heat Protection Standard. Last July, more than 130 organizations, supported by members of Congress, delivered a petition to OSHA to draft such a standard. In the fall the organizational petition was followed by a grassroots petition signed by over 61,000 individuals so far. And in April, UCS joined 109 other organizations in signing on to a letter of support for worker protections from climate change.

Farmworkers, like all workers, deserve protection from dangerous working conditions. We can all help make sure they get that protection. You can learn more about the national campaign and find ways to get involved here—starting with the grassroots petition that is still open. For this National Heat Awareness Day, let’s commit to make protecting workers from dangerous heat a matter of law, not luck.