2019 has been deemed the second hottest year on record, according to NOAA and NASA, making 2010-2019 the hottest decade, with 8 out of the 10 hottest years occurring during that period.
Dehydration, heatstroke, extreme exhaustion, and exacerbated pre-existing health conditions could happen to anyone enduring extreme levels of heat. But for vulnerable populations like farmworkers, these outcomes are amplified, putting them at even greater risk. So, how do we help farmworkers cope?
As we transition from winter into spring, with more warm days on record and summer not far behind, we are all responsible for those around us but, more importantly, for those individuals we choose to avoid seeing. Extreme heat and heatwaves have significant impact on the public health in general, but for outdoor workers like farmworkers, they increase the frequency of potential deaths if not taken seriously.
Farmworkers fall into the category of workers at high risk, as they do not have the option to schedule their work hours, locations, or workload – all suggestions made to outdoor workers as ways to circumvent falling victim to a heat-related illness. However, for at-risk workers such as farmworkers where intimidation and fear are underlying factors, making decisions regarding their job duties is not going to happen.
AFOP Health & Safety Programs recommends that employers too, monitor heatwaves, workers’ workloads and hours, and ensure workers take breaks in the shade and drink sufficient amounts of water. However, because there is no federal Heat Standard to protect outdoor workers (although a few states have OSHA-approved State Plans that have adopted heat standards), there’s no guarantee that our recommendation will be taken to heart.
Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees’ employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.
– Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970
Yes, there is a push for a federal heat standard, but it takes time to make laws and our workers are dying now. As of right now, the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is all there is to serve as protection for farmworkers against heat-related illnesses, injury, and death.
Heat-related illnesses often go unreported or misdiagnosed as caused by something other than high temperatures, especially if they occur in the absence of a heatwave. Much like heat-related deaths, there are usually additional factors that come into play i.e. pre-existing medical conditions.
So, until we have a federal heat standard on the books, it is our collective duty to be our ‘brother’s keeper’ despite our job duties or social classifications. We all benefit from the labor of farmworkers, and, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, we are one society. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses and knowing what to do in case of an emergency can save not only your life but that of your “brother” and sister.