As heat rises, who will protect farmworkers? – July 14, 2022

(AG Insider) Last June, as a record-breaking heatwave baked Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Sebastian Francisco Perez was moving irrigation lines at a large plant nursery in 104-degree-heat.

When he didn’t appear at the end of his shift, his co-workers went looking for him, and found him collapsed between rows of trees. Investigators from the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division determined that Perez died of heat-related hyperthermia and dehydration.

They also found that Perez had not been provided with basic information about how to protect himself from the heat. It wasn’t the farm’s first brush with regulators; it had previously been cited for failing to provide water and toilets to its workers.

Later, in a closed conference with Oregon OSHA, an Ernst Nursery & Farms official blamed Perez for his own death, claiming that employees should “be accountable for how they push their bodies.”

This year, in a move to avert similar deaths — and force employers to take responsibility for protecting workers during hot weather — Oregon adopted the most stringent heat protections for outdoor workers in the country.

The rule kicks in when temperatures reach 80 degrees and requires employers to provide cool water, rest breaks and shade, as well as to make plans for how to acclimatize workers to heat, prevent heat illness and seek help in case of an emergency.

Farmworkers at Del Bosque Farms take a break from picking melons in Firebaugh, California, on Friday, July 9, 2021, when temperatures reached 110 degrees. AP Photo/Terry Chea.
The new standard has been praised by advocates, but industry is already pushing back.

On June 15, the day the rule took effect, a coalition of Oregon business groups representing more than 1,000 companies filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the heat standard and another new rule governing workers’ exposure to wildfire smoke, arguing that they are unconstitutional.

But the rules stand for now, making Oregon the third state to enact such standards for outdoor workers, after California and Washington.

In the rest of the country, as climate change drives increasingly brutal heat waves, farmworkers lack protection. How they fare will largely depend on whether their employers voluntarily decide to provide the access to water, shade and rest breaks that are critical when working in extreme heat.

There are currently no nationwide regulations that spell out what employers must do to protect workers from heat and, while efforts to draft a federal rule recently began, it will likely be years before the standards are in place.

Farmworkers are up to 35 times more likely to die from heat-related illness than workers in general, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

And the risk will only grow as the climate crisis intensifies, and particularly if swift action to cut emissions is not taken. Already, 21 days per season in U.S. crop-growing counties are considered unsafe because of the heat, according to a 2020 study.

By 2050, if global average temperatures rise by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), that number is projected to reach 39 days per season.

By 2100, if the current emissions trajectory continues, average temperatures are projected to rise more than 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), which would make 62 days per year unsafe for workers in crop-growing regions, and render the southernmost parts of the U.S. unsafe for the entire growing season.

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