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News > U.S.

Climate Change Imperils US Farmworkers

  • Workers in California, U.S., 2023.

    Workers in California, U.S., 2023. | Photo: X/ @AndyVermaut

Published 6 September 2023

As average temperatures increase and heat waves strike the United States, the heat stress on farmworkers is getting worse.

U.S. agricultural workers, who have long been vulnerable to heat effects, are facing increased health risks as global climate warms.


Heat Wave Hits Eastern United States

The summer of 2023 has broken records for heat in many regions across the United States. Heat-related fatalities have far outnumbered other weather-related deaths, and this is especially true for farmworkers who toil away for hours outdoors.

The latest heat-related death was reported last month in Fresno, California, where a 59-year-old worker suffered heat illness symptoms while harvesting tomatillos in the fields, according to a report by The Fresno Bee.

On the day of his death, the temperatures reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37.8 degrees Celsius, according to the National Weather Service. Before that, the area was in the grip of triple-digit heat that prompted a hazard alert from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

The United Farm Workers, a labor union for agricultural workers, blamed the death on working in extreme heat. As average temperatures increase and heat waves strike the state, the heat stress on farmworkers is getting worse.

Farmworkers are especially vulnerable to heat stress due to the strenuous nature of their work, which is performed primarily outdoors under poor working conditions, researchers noted in a 2022 study published by medical journal Frontiers in Public Health.

"The combined effect of the metabolic heat produced internally from heavy physical activity and the external heat from the surrounding environment contributes to the high risk of heat stress among workers," the study said.

Due to the continuous rise of global temperatures and heatwaves worldwide as a result of climate change, concerns for the health and safety of working populations have increased, and farmworkers are left particularly vulnerable.

As a result, farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other sectors, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Over a six-year period, 121 workers in the Midwestern United States lost their lives due to exposure to severe environmental heat. One-fifth of these fatalities were individuals employed in the agricultural sector, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)'s data.

From 2017 to 2022, agriculture has been the sector with the third-highest number of deaths related to heat exposure, according to OSHA fatality inspection data.

Workers from vulnerable groups are also more likely to be exposed to extreme weather conditions caused by climate change, said experts. In the United States, farmworkers are mostly immigrants who work long hours with low pay.

"Outdoor, low-wage laborers whose work might get canceled by weather impacts can't necessarily bear many days without pay, and people might continue to work because of financial needs," Michele Barry, senior associate dean of global health at Stanford University, said in a 2022 article posted on the university's website.

On the other hand, experts identify several protective and preventive measures, including drinking water, changing work hours, wearing appropriate clothing, and taking breaks in shaded or air-conditioned areas.

However, farmworker advocates said due to the absence of a federal heat regulation, such preventative measures are left at the discretion of the employers in most states.

Only four states in the United States, namely California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, have adopted outdoor workplace heat-stress standards.

In Arizona, some state lawmakers were calling on Governor Katie Hobbs to declare a heat-related emergency and to provide additional cooling, water and other resources for those working outside in the heat.

At least 112 federal lawmakers have recently signed a letter, pushing U.S. President Joe Biden to take administrative actions to better protect workers from extreme heat in workplaces.

Farmworker advocacy groups are calling on the administration to speed up OSHA's issuance of a rule protecting workers.

OSHA has been working on a heat-stress rule since 2021, but process has been slow, and can take up to 19 years, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

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