Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Heat wave poses life or death decisions for immigrant farmworkers

Many regions have been experiencing heat waves due to climate change this summer, exceeding 100 degrees and breaking many records. While the heat may mean discomfort for some and natural disasters for others, one group is distinctively impacted: farmworkers, who are predominantly immigrants. 

In an article published in Al Jazeera and a similar one published in US News and World Report, farmworkers describe the condundrum this poses: their job or their health?

Severe weather warnings state that “extreme heat will significantly increase the potential for heat-related illnesses, particularly for those working or participating in outdoor activities.” The heat has also caused hundreds of deaths. Yet for  poor and undocumented workers, staying indoors would mean missing out on wages they cannot miss. So they do the work at risk to their own health. One immigrant worker said succinctly:

“The heat is too much. But what choice do we have? We can’t afford to stop.”

Western states impacted by heatwaves and ripe in farmwork have varying protections in state laws. For example, California mandates 10-minute rest breaks every two hours (with shade) and access to cool water. Their occupational heat illness prevention standard that includes training and planning. Washington has a similar occupational heat illness prevention standard, requiring employers to create an outdoor heat exposure plan, train employees, increase the amount of water provided to employees on days when temperatures require preventive measures, and be prepared to react to symptoms of heat-related illness. Oregon has a new OSHA regulation to manage the heat after an immigrant worker died there in early July.   Colorado is developing protections after Gov. Jared Polis signed SB87 this summer; it is a bill concerning agricultural workers' rights and instructs the state's Department of Labor and Employment to enforce protections for workers when outdoor temperatures reach or exceed 80 degrees.

Under federal OSHA law, employers are generally responsible for "providing workplaces free of known safety hazards," including from extreme heat. But there is no federal occupational heat illness prevention standard. Federal protections are being contemplated. 

 The results can be dangerous or deadly for immigrant workers. A study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 600 people die each year from heat waves, and farm workers die from heatstroke at a rate 20 times greater than for all civilian workers in the US.




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