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Why Are California Farmworkers Dying In the Fields?

Scores of California farmworkers are dying in the heat in regions with chronically bad air, even in a state with one of the toughest heat standards in the nation. According to new report in Climate News By Liza Gross, and Peter Aldhous.

According to the American Lung Association current research has shown that agricultural workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat-related stress than workers in other industries. Extreme heat and drought also are fueling more intense wildfire seasons, and outdoor workers are increasingly having to deal with harmful exposures to wildfire smoke. climate change is responsible for 40% of global heat deaths.

No federal standard protects workers from extreme heat, though OSHA proposed a rule in 2021—a half century after public health officials first recommended precautionary measures. California was the first of the five states that have passed a heat exposure standard and its requirements are considered among the toughest. Yet the standard doesn’t recognize an increasingly dangerous threat for agricultural laborers in a warming world: Climate Change.

Scientists are gaining new insights into the complex constellation of factors that interact with heat to cause illness and death. They know workers can die of heat stroke even when temperatures fall below the low 80s. They know existing reporting measures vastly underestimate heat-related injuries and deaths. And they’ve discovered that simultaneous short-term exposure to heat and fine particle pollution, both deadly on their own, may be particularly lethal.

Fine particles can interact with high heat to double the risk of fatal heart attacks when compared with either exposure in isolation, a recent study in China published in the journal Circulation found. It’s unclear how well the results apply to other geographic regions, the researchers cautioned. But the study corroborates previous evidence that co-exposure heightens risk of death.

Heat forces the body to work harder to keep its internal temperature in check, straining the lungs, heart and kidneys. The heart pumps harder and faster as blood vessels dilate and blood pressure drops, reducing blood flow and oxygen to the brain and increasing the risk of fatal heart attack and respiratory distress. Adding to their risks, workers who fuel the region’s $37 billion agricultural market earn so little—an average annual wage of $22 thousand dollars a year for 12 hour workdays 6 days a week is what California farm workers can expect in 2023.

As of Dec 28, 2023, the average hourly pay for a Migrant Worker in Massachusetts is $18.80 an hour. While ZipRecruiter is seeing salaries as high as $31.50 and as low as $10.24, the majority of Migrant Worker salaries currently range between $16.54 (25th percentile) to $23.12 (75th percentile) in Massachusetts. As of Jan 2, 2024, the average hourly pay for a Migrant Worker in the United States is $18.73 an hour.

In 2023 Yakima County, Washington saw higher overall temperatures than in previous years: Highs averaged around 96 degrees while lows averaged around 65 — 6 and 7 degrees higher, respectively, than normal. Days with temperatures over 90 degrees doubled! 2023 has set record temperatures, especially in the West, and heat waves are becoming a more regular occurrence. While many residents in these regions can work in closed environments with air conditioning, those who labor outside must show up every day to work in increasingly higher temperatures due to climate change.

Globally, climate change is expected to threaten food production and certain aspects of food quality, as well as food prices and distribution systems. Many crop yields are predicted to decline because of the combined effects of changes in rainfall, severe weather events, and increasing competition from weeds and pests on crop plants. Livestock and fish production are also projected to decline. Prices are expected to rise in response to declining food production and associated trends such as increasingly expensive petroleum (used for agricultural inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers). The use of these products on healthy soil will in turn cause less healthy crops with less nutritional value to be sold while simultaneously supporting the main cause of global warming fossil fuels!


There are several measures that can be taken to protect farmworkers during heat waves and prevent negative impacts on their health:

Access to clean water: workers should be able to drink clean and sufficient water whenever they need to. Ideally, water should be cold, provided free of charge, and be offered near the employees’ workplace. Frequent water drinking should be encouraged.

Access to shades: workers should be offered the opportunity to access shaded areas during their free and recovery times. Whenever possible, employers should use tractors or other tools to transport and keep shade-providing structures around harvesting areas. Fans and other cooling devices should also be offered to workers in their housing arrangements.

Introduction of “alternative” shifts: the hottest hours during the day should be avoided for outdoor activity. If portable lights are an option, shifts could be moved to the evening or early morning to avoid exposure to sunlight.

Increasing the frequency and number of resting periods: to allow workers to recover and hydrate. Special considerations should be given to older workers Implementation of peer-involving strategies: incentivizing workers to constantly look, together with their supervisors, for indications that their co-workers could be suffering from heat stress.

Training: workers on how to detect heat-related stress symptoms, what to do if they experience any, where to access water and shades, and how to adapt their clothing depending on the temperature.

Information: about weather forecasts and other recommendations by public officials should be monitored. Generally, Extension personnel at universities, state and local health departments, and non-profit groups can provide additional resources related to protecting workers during heat waves (both in English and Spanish). Heat waves are likely to happen more often as the planet experiences the consequences of climate change.


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