This week is our annual Heat Stress Prevention Training Marathon, when our nationwide network of trainers goes out into the fields to train as many farmworkers as possible on how to stay safe in the stifling heat. At the same time, our country is entering month four of our response to the coronavirus. And, although the hope was that the summer months would slow the spread of the virus, that has not been the case. So the question we’re now asking ourselves is, how can farmworkers stay safe from the coronavirus AND excessive heat?
With the loosening of restrictions, individuals have been having a hard time adhering to the recommendations of the CDC guidelines to stay at least 6-feet apart and wear a face covering. There are complaints of being able to breathe comfortably and the mask sticking to one’s face. Without a cure or even treatment for the virus, however, these measures are the only defense we have against the disease.
In the fields, maintaining the recommended distance has been a problem from the beginning, because crops don’t grow conveniently separated 6 feet apart. Rather, there are rows of tightly packed produce for as far as the eye can see and farmworkers in groups shoulder-to-shoulder harvesting it. Not to mention that making sure farmworkers have access to masks has been an ongoing challenge.
Farmworkers are already well-versed on the benefits of wearing additional layers of breathable fabrics, such as long-sleeve shirts and long pants to cover their skin and protect them from possible pesticide or sun exposure. But, while some of our farmworkers are accustomed to wearing bandanas on their faces to guard against the inhalation of pesticide particles, many are not. The practice of wearing a face mask as protection against COVID-19 may be new and unfamiliar, and one they have not been adequately trained on.
The bad news is that wearing a face mask may increase one’s risk of contracting a heat-related illness. Consumer advocate Public Citizen states that “the use of personal protection equipment (PPE), while necessary to keep workers safe from COVID-19 and other hazardous working conditions, also increases the chances of overheating. For example, protective clothing may trap heat and perspiration on the body’s surface, increasing the core body temperature to dangerous levels. Wearing protective garments over your clothing is like adding an additional 5°F or more to the ambient temperature.”
Fortunately, there are measures that employers can take to reduce the risk of their employees falling ill to either the coronavirus, a heat-related illness, or both. OSHA and CDC have each released non-binding recommendations for the coronavirus, and OSHA and NIOSH have released recommendations related to the heat. Public Citizen put these recommendations together and released comprehensive guidance on how to protect workers from contracting a heat-related illness even as we continue to fight this pandemic. These recommendations included calculating and setting heat stress thresholds (adjusted downward when wearing masks); providing mandatory rest breaks; monitoring workers closely both for symptoms of COVID-19 and heat stress; ensuring access to adequate hydration on the job; providing proper PPE, including PPE that cools down the body; and more.
The law firm Fisher Philips wrote that employers should also consider doing the following:
- a greater number of, and more frequent, break periods to avoid employees developing heat-stress and heat-related illnesses;
- allowing employees to return to their vehicles to sit in air conditioning during their breaks, or if such an option is not available, creating a shaded environment for breaks;
- employers may also suggest that employees remove their masks during secluded breaks (such as a break in a personal vehicle) to permit the employee to breathe freely and potentially lower their core temperature (as long as local and state guidelines are followed);
- employers may also consider the feasibility of starting the workday earlier in the morning or later in the evening to avoid working during peak temperatures and humidity;
- provide a readily-available supply of masks so that employees can change out sweat-soaked masks for clean and dry masks which may have greater breathability; and
- consider providing work clothing that is both breathable and wicking in nature.
As our farmworkers are harvesting this summer, AFOP Health & Safety and its network of trainers will continue to provide much-needed occupational safety trainings – incorporating CDC recommendations about COVID-19 and passing out masks as necessary. Our mission is to ensure that the necessary precautions are being taken, that our farmworkers are being provided plenty of water, and that they are taking breaks in the shade where they can safely remove some of their protective gear, allowing their bodies to properly cool. Safety first!
***If you are working in the heat and note symptoms like light-headedness, a dry mouth, extreme thirst, high amounts of sweat, and increased irritability, you may be experiencing the onset of a heat-related illness (HRI). Immediately take rest in a shaded area, re-hydrate, and cool down. It is important to take regular, shaded breaks and to drink water regularly in order to prevent HRIs.