When heat waves blanket regions of the country, an uncomfortable situation for many people can turn deadly for farmworkers laboring in fields. “That’s especially true in the Central Valley, where a major portion of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown. If farmworkers don’t drink enough water, are unable to take breaks in the shade, or simply aren’t acclimatized to working at such high temperatures, they can suffer heat exhaustion, heatstroke, even death,” writes Ingfei Chen in FERN’s latest story, published with Mother Jones.
“How heat kills farmworkers,” says that at least four U.S. farmworkers die from heat annually — 20 times the rate among all non-military employees, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The death of 10 outdoor workers in 2005 actually prompted California to institute a heat protection law. By mandating access to water, shade and heat-protection training for outdoor laborers, the regulations put the state on a precedent-setting path. But Chen notes: “California’s heat standard has been praised as a model for the rest of the country, though only one state—Washington—has followed suit.”
Even in California, labor advocates sued the state to make the regulations stronger, and only recently has a researcher on the issue noticed improvement in the locale she studies. That was likely due to several factors, “including a state heat protection law that some companies in the area are finally following under heightened scrutiny, and the recent immigration crackdown. With their labor supply under pressure, employers simply don’t want to risk losing more workers,” Chen writes.
Other labor advocates still see problems, however. “We continue to hear from people that there’s still employers that don’t provide water, don’t provide shade,” said Estella Cisneros, directing attorney in the Fresno regional office of California Rural Legal Assistance, in the Central Valley.
California isn’t alone in these problems. North Carolina, for instance, has historically had the worst rate of heat fatalities among ag workers in the U.S. Many North Carolina employers follow a field-sanitation requirement of providing drinking water within a quarter-mile of worksites, but because there’s no requirement for rest breaks or shade, some workers don’t have time to drink that water.