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Death in the fields: U.S. Migrant farm workers are dying as extreme heat rises

Increased extreme temperatures throughout the U.S. are contributing to heat-related deaths among migrant farm workers. 

Photo by Akin on Unsplash

If you live in the northern hemisphere, then you’ve probably noticed the summer season has been especially brutal this year. The increase in temperatures has been a trend in recent years, with summer after summer breaking new records. Extreme heat waves have been reported across the U.S. over the past few months, with June 2021 becoming the hottest June on record in the U.S.  

These record-breaking temperatures are contributing to a rise in heat illness, which includes heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.  According to the CDC, about 700 people die in the U.S. each year from heat-related exposure.

For those working outdoors during this hot climate, the dangers are even greater. Long hours of direct exposure to heat can quickly lead to life-threatening conditions. Already, farmers and field workers are seeing the devastating effects of rising heat as workers die on the job. 

Death on the job: The deadly effects of heat illness

A recent Bloomberg article detailed the plight of U.S. farm workers who are battling the extreme heat with little to no protective measures in place to ensure their safety in the workplace. According to data collected by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, nearly 70,000 U.S. workers were seriously injured due to excessive heat between 1992 and 2016. Additionally, there have been 783 workplace deaths attributed to excessive heat in those years. 

These dangerous conditions have already resulted in at least three deaths, according to the labor union, United Farm Workers, who have been attempting to track cases of heat-related deaths. 

Florencio Gueta Vargas, a 69 year old farm worker from Washington, was one of the individuals whose recent death has been attributed to heat-related causes. Gueta Vargas was found by his boss slumped over a tractor on Thursday, July 29th. That day the temperature had risen to the triple digits. 

His daughter, Lorena Gonzalez –one of six children that Gueta Vargas worked to support– blames working conditions and the family believes his death could have been prevented. On a GoFundMe to raise money for her father’s funeral she wrote, “Due to these high temperatures and working conditions my father was found dead at work due heatstroke.” 

Heat stroke is one of many heat illnesses and often fatal. Early symptoms of heat illness include headaches, dizziness, or extreme tiredness. Symptoms of heat stroke include: 

  • Change in mental state, such as confusion, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things) and slurred speech
  • Increased body temperature — 104 degrees F or higher
  • Hot, red, dry skin with no sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Trouble walking
  • Seizures

[Source Mayo Clinic

Heat temperature alone is not the only concern when it comes to heat illness. Humidity is another important factor that affects the body’s experience of heat. Humidity actually makes it harder for our bodies to cool down. When there is humidity, it becomes harder for sweat to evaporate off the skin. The evaporation of sweat is what allows our bodies to cool down. 

Since her father’s passing, Lorena Gonzalez has visited her father’s worksite every day. In a PBS article, she describes the temperatures in the fields: the high humidity and smoke from nearby wildfires are heavy weight on her chest. She notes that her father was constantly exposed to these elements driving a tractor with no roof. The lack of protective measures for farmers from the equipment used to lax protocols for dealing with heat and taking breaks all contribute to the unsafe working conditions farm workers are facing today. 

“I just wish they would understand he was a person, that this is so hard on his daughters. My dad — God knows how long he was out there,” said Lorena.

Increasing safety in the workplace for farm workers 

Due to the increasing climate related dangers facing farm workers, advocates are now pushing for OSHA regulations to issue federal heat standards. These standards would require water, shade, and rest breaks to all farm workers. 

In an article by The Guardian, Florida farm worker Tere Cruz said, “It would be really good to have a broad rule so when farm owners see that temperatures are way too high they need to stop and allow people to rest. Things as they are right now, you can see when it’s really hot that by 1 or 2 in the afternoon, people just can’t work any more. But there’s this real pressure to keep working and keep working.” Cruz added, “We’re not animals, we’re human beings, but there’s this feeling that no matter what happens, even when people can’t seem to work any more, the bosses keep pushing and pushing.”

Currently, there are no OSHA regulations to cover heat illness, however efforts are being made to change this. According to Bloomberg, a letter was recently signed on August 3rd by several senators asking the health agency to take action  by creating permanent and enforceable heat standards to ensure safety in the workplace. Ohio senator Sherrod Brown said, “Protecting workers from heat stress is essential” as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change. 

So far, both Oregon and Washington have issued emergency rules to address the heat issue and ensure safety in the workplace, but advocates say these measures are not enough. 

“These are not financial policies, these are health and safety protections,” said  Elizabeth Strater, an organizer with the United Farm Workers. “These are actual men and women and children going out into the fields to work and die to feed the rest of this country, and they are being treated as though they are this human buffer to ensure that there continues to be a well-stocked fridge in your air-conditioned kitchen.” 

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Additionally, many farm workers are undocumented migrants. This makes it difficult for workers to challenge unsafe working conditions or seek legal aid. Many do not speak out, fearing deportation, cut hours, or job loss. Due to these factors, many safety violations go unreported. A set standard for heat-related stress and illness at the federal level would ensure that all workers are protected. As advocates, we need to continue to push for better practices and workplace safety regulations because in the words of Lorena Gonzalez, “No one deserves to pass away at work.” 

heat wave, sunset,

A world on fire: How to survive the rising heat

During the past few months, we have witnessed some of the dangerous effects of climate change. We have seen drought, wildfires, and superstorms ravage communities. Earlier last month, the ocean burned when a gas pipeline burst in the Gulf of Mexico. These are some of the extreme events recently brought on by climate change and harmful human practices. But there is another dangerous crisis at hand that is affecting thousands of lives, and that is heat illness. 

heat wave, sunset,

Photo by Jeremy Zero on Unsplash

In the northern hemisphere we have been experiencing the summer season, a warm and sunny time of the year many look forward to as a pleasant and relaxing season. However, in recent years, this season has become a dangerous time for some. Just last month, many countries  experienced extreme heatwaves and record-breaking temperatures, putting many individuals at risk for heat-related illnesses and even death. 

Many areas, especially far up north, are not built to handle extreme heat and in fact, some northern buildings were built specifically to keep heat in! 

As the climate change crisis continues to impact our lives, it’s important we learn how to navigate these rising temperatures and keep ourselves and at-risk individuals safe. 

Watch for symptoms of heat illness

According to the CDC, about 700 people die in the U.S. each year from heat-related exposure. Most often these individuals are older adults, young children, and people with chronic illnesses. 

Heat illness is also unfortunately more likely to affect low-income individuals as low-income areas are often less protected from heat or not equipped to properly handle increasing temperatures. Historically, low-income and urban housing has been occupied by minority ethnic groups and people of color, meaning these groups are likely to suffer more from the effects of rising temperatures. 

Be on the lookout for symptoms of heat illness. Common heat illnesses include, from mildest to most dangerous: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Anyone experiencing symptoms of heat illness should rest, stay hydrated, and remain cool. 

Early symptoms of heat illness include headaches, dizziness, or extreme tiredness. Symptoms of heat stroke, which is life threatening, include: 

  • Change in mental state, such as confusion, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things) and slurred speech
  • Increased body temperature — 104 degrees F or higher
  • Hot, red, dry skin with no sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Trouble walking
  • Seizures

[Source Mayo Clinic

Staying cool during unprecedented heatwaves 

This summer temperatures have risen to record highs in parts of the world that have never had to grapple with intense heat. 

While southerners may scoff at what some consider “hot” we need to remember that many areas up north historically were built with the purpose of keeping heat inside. Before rapid global warming, northern regions typically did not experience high temperatures and remained fairly cool throughout the year. Homes and buildings were created with the purpose of keeping inhabitants warm throughout the harsh winter months. Now, these buildings are becoming hazards to individuals as the summer months have shifted from pleasant temperatures to scorching heat. 

Heat alone is not the only concern. Humidity is another important factor that affects the body’s experience of heat. Humidity actually makes it harder for our bodies to cool down. When there is humidity, it becomes harder for sweat to evaporate off the skin. The evaporation of sweat is what allows our bodies to cool down. Because of this, humidity is often factored in with temperature in what is known as the “heat index.” The heat index describes what temperature it “feels like” to our bodies, since humidity can often make temperatures feel hotter than the number on the thermostat. Those living in humid areas should keep an eye on the heat index and not only the temperature. 

To keep yourself cool during unprecedented heatwaves and avoid heat illness, there are a few key strategies to follow. 

Stay hydrated. Drinking water or sports drinks is best when battling the heat. Avoid alcohol as it can actually make you more dehydrated. 

Dress appropriately. Wear light-colored, loose clothing. Dark colors will absorb heat, which will only make you feel hotter. Light colors will reflect sunlight, keeping you cooler. 

Remain in cool, shaded areas. An air conditioned indoor area is best for staying cool during extreme heat, but if AC is not an option, then remain in shaded areas with good air ventilation. During the day you can practice “passive cooling” techniques such as putting down the shades on windows as soon as the sun comes up, installing reflective materials or painting roofs white, and taking advantage of natural shade from nature. Using fans indoors is also recommended but only if the temperature indoors is below 95 degrees. Fan-use in higher temperatures actually makes it more difficult for the body to cool down

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The passive cooling movement is particularly effective for those who live in buildings where AC is not an option. AC use also contributes to much of the pollution affecting the atmosphere today and causing the rise in temperatures. Part of the movement to combat heat illness and issues includes advocating for green policies and reforms. Individual action will not be enough to combat the effects of rising temperatures moving forward. Communities need to come together to plant more trees, providing more shade and shelter, especially in urban areas that are prone to becoming urban heat islands. Other community initiatives to combat rising heat dangers include replacing materials in buildings to retain cool temperatures, such as installing tile on floors, painting roofs, and adding external shutters to windows. 

Supporting these initiatives and staying informed about the dangers of heat illness and rising temperatures is the first step to combating this climate crisis and reversing the effects of climate change.