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Extreme Heat Pushes More Farmworkers to Harvest at Night, Creating New Risks

By Kristoffer Tigue - Inside Climate News , October 31, 2023

American farmworkers are increasingly at risk of heat-related illness and death as climate change drives temperatures around the world to record highs. That’s pushing more and more workers to harvest crops at night to avoid extreme heat, according to recent reports, which is creating a host of new risks that experts say need to be more thoroughly studied.

More than 2 million U.S. farmworkers, who typically toil outdoors under a hot summer sun, are exceptionally at risk of succumbing to heat-related illness, the Environmental Defense Fund warned in a July report, with heat-related mortalities 20 times higher for crop workers than in other private industries, as well as employees in local and state government. About three weeks of the summer harvest season are now expected to be too hot to safely work outdoors, the report’s authors added, and that number will only increase as global warming continues.

Government data and other studies have found that an average of 43 farmworkers die every year from heat-related illness. But top officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees U.S. working conditions, say that number is significantly undercounted, largely because heat doesn’t get factored into deaths from cardiac arrests and respiratory failures. One advocacy group estimated that heat exposure could be responsible for as many as 2,000 worker fatalities in the U.S. each year.

In fact, this summer was the hottest on record for the entire northern hemisphere, federal scientists announced in September, in large part because of climate change. Parts of the Midwest and large regions of Europe are also experiencing record hot Octobers.

As the daytime heat has gone up, a growing number of agriculture workers—many of whom are Latino and undocumented—now work while it’s still dark out. But that could be trading one risk for a set of others, labor and safety advocates are warning.

Workers are dying from extreme heat. Why aren’t there laws to protect them?

By Jana Cholakovska and Nate Rosenfield - Grist, October 19, 2023

This story is co-published with The Guardian and produced in partnership with the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. It is part of Record High, a Grist series examining extreme heat and its impact on how — and where — we live.

Jasmine Granillo was eager for her older brother, Roendy, to get home. With their dad’s long hours at his construction job, Roendy always tried to make time for his sister. He had promised to take her shopping at a local flea market when he returned from work. 

“I thought my brother was coming home,” Granillo said. 

Roendy Granillo was installing floors in Melissa, Texas, in July 2015. Temperatures had reached 95 degrees Fahrenheit when he began to feel sick. He asked for a break, but his employer told him to keep working. Shortly after, he collapsed. He died on the way to the hospital from heat stroke. He was 25 years old. 

A few months later, the Granillo family joined protesters on the steps of Dallas City Hall for a thirst strike to demand water breaks for construction workers. Jasmine, only 11 years old at the time, spoke to a crowd about her brother’s death. She said that she was scared, but that she “didn’t really think about the fear.” 

“I just knew that it was a lot bigger than me,” she said.

Nighttime Harvests Protect Farmworkers From Extreme Heat, but Bring Other Risks

By Amy Mayer - Civil Eats,September 27, 2023

In the summer months, Flor Sanchez and the members of her harvest crew rise before dawn and arrive at a cherry orchard in Washington state’s Yakima Valley when there is only the slightest hint of daylight.

“We use headlamps,” she says, to carry ladders to the trees. Climbing up into the branches to harvest the ripe fruit in near-darkness, she says, “seems a little dangerous.” Headlamps cast shadows that can make it difficult to see the fruit. Setting up ladders in the dark also poses a danger.

Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns with United Farm Workers, says for field crops like onions and garlic, harvesting at night by headlamp or flood lights poses less risk than picking tree fruit because ladders aren’t needed, the short plants don’t create shadows, and workers know exactly what to pick even if they can’t completely see what they’re doing. The produce itself is also more durable. Winegrape harvest also often takes place at night.

Across super-hot regions, nocturnal harvest, as Strater calls the practice, has become increasingly common. As climate change pushes summer temperatures higher on more consecutive days, and scientists are forecasting even warmer years ahead, more workers may find themselves in the field at night and in the early morning hours. And while some safety measures have been put in place, more data is needed to assess the challenges workers face.

Extreme heat is on everyone’s lips. Too bad it can’t get political traction

By Alexander Nieves - Politico, August 16, 2023

Scorching summer temperatures have pushed extreme heat to the front of the nation’s collective consciousness. There’s just one problem: It’s hard to get politicians to care about it.

Even in California, home of the nation’s first outdoor heat standard for workers and a new law to create a ranking system for heat waves, the issue has yet to gain political traction. Advocates have struggled to secure funding to help residents adapt, and state officials have been slow to enforce worker safety rules.

California’s handling of extreme heat doesn’t bode well for the nation’s ability to address the effects of rising temperatures, which are most likely to harm people who can’t access air conditioning and who are already in poor health.

“Our focus has been on priorities where you can get people to buy in and, frankly, where it’s sexy. It’s new technology, it’s talking about electric vehicles and rooftop solar,” said state Sen. Anna Caballero, a Central Valley Democrat who represents rural communities that are among the poorest in the state. “We haven’t focused on the impacts of climate change on lower-income families.”

While President Joe Biden announced a federal effort last week to track heat-related illnesses, California officials began paying closer attention to heat deaths in 2021, after the Los Angeles Times estimated that high temperatures had killed nearly 4,000 people between 2010 and 2019 — more than six times higher than official state figures.

The data dwarfs fatalities from more dramatic extreme weather events like wildfires, floods and windstorms. Fewer than 300 Californians died from those events over the same period of time, according to data from the National Weather Service.

Green Unionism and Human Rights: Imaginings Beyond the Green New Deal

By Chaumtoli Huq - Pace Environmental Law Review, January 2023

Web Editor's Note: This publication contains an error, identifying the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), a CIO union, as an IWW affiliate. This is inaccurate. The IWA was cofounded by many radical workers, including (but not limited to) members of the IWW, but it was never an IWW union itself.

The Green New Deal harkens us back to the nostalgia of the New Deal era when a diverse and comprehensive set of federal legislation, agencies, programs, public work projects and financial reforms were implemented between 1933 and 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to promote economic recovery. Among them, relevant to this essay’s focus on labor, was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) which provided legal protection to organizing, and supporting unionization and collective bargaining. However, due to political compromises, categories of workers including domestic workers and agricultural workers, who were mostly Black and immigrants were excluded from the NLRA’s coverage. Despite these exclusions, it was a time when the New Deal state seemed to be a strong ally of workers and the labor movement. Industrial peace and security were dominant narratives fueling much of the New Deal legislation. This industrial peace and security rhetoric suppressed the radicalization and rising militancy of the labor movement of the time such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Moreover, the law was actively used to prosecute criminally radical unionists and through other extra-judicial means.

New Deal policies solidified one form of unionism, referred to as business or contract unionism which is based on the idea that the union or labor movement brokers wages, benefits from its members, through collective bargaining agreements, and unions become servicers or administrators of those benefits. Such an approach heavily defers to law, state and legislative spaces as the protector of labor rights; thereby, ceding power away from worker or community control. In contrast, social unionism espoused the view that the role of the labor movement was to build worker power which gives them greater control over their livelihood, workplaces and environment. This view encompassed a wide spectrum of political ideologies and strategies. Social unionism broadly advanced that unions should address the economic interests of its members, encourage them to be active on broader issues of social justice and engage with the state to pass protective worker legislation.18 Under the social unionism view, syndicalists like IWW were skeptical or at most contemptuous of the legal system and emphasized the direct role of the union as agents of social change and governance.

Read the report (PDF).

'Incredible Victory': California Gov. Newsom Signs Farmworker Unionization Bill Into Law

By Kenny Stancil - Common Dreams, September 29, 2022

After vetoing similar legislation last year and threatening to do so again last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday signed Assembly Bill 2183 into law, making it easier for farmworkers in the state to participate in union elections.

The Democratic governor's about-face on the measure represents a major victory for labor leaders. It follows a monthslong push by United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and the California Labor Federation (CLF) and comes in the wake of pressure from President Joe Biden and two high-ranking national Democrats with California ties—Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"This is an incredible victory," said UFW president Teresa Romero. "Starting next year, farmworkers can participate in elections free from intimidation and deportations. ¡Sí se puede!"

A.B. 2183, which the CLF called "the most consequential private sector organizing bill in our state's history," gives farmworkers a streamlined way to unionize without having to cast a ballot at a polling place on or near growers' property following a monthslong anti-union campaign.

Climate Change at Work

By NRDC - Grist, July 19, 2022

Last summer, the Pacific Northwest was hit by a once-in-a-millenium heat dome. While temperatures were higher than ever recorded, L.A.* was outside, working Washington’s blueberry harvest. (Fearing potential work repercussions, L.A. did not wish to be identified by her full name.) Soon, she was dehydrated, dizzy, and vomiting. Her minor son, who was also working in the field out in the heat, got a bloody nose and headache. When the harvest was moved to the middle of the night to avoid the most intense heat—”to protect the fruit, not the workers,” L.A. says—her friend cut herself badly laboring in the dark. 

Whether it’s heatwaves, wildfire smoke, or attempts to adapt that create new hazards, the climate crisis is exacerbating risks for America’s workers. From home health aides and school teachers to construction and farm workers, people across the country are now facing compounding challenges on the widening frontlines of the climate crisis. Yet federal protections for the workplace have not kept pace.

During California’s recent wildfires, shocking photos emerged of farmworkers harvesting grapes in California vineyards under an orange-tinged sky. That may be one of the most visible examples of people being forced to work in dangerous conditions, but it’s far from the only climate-related health risk employees regularly face. “The reality is that millions of workers—across our society—are being exposed to multiple environmental stressors all at once, including searing heat and toxic air pollution,” says Dr. Vijay Limaye, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). 

For instance, Limaye explains that the formation of ground level ozone—air pollution formed in the atmosphere from building blocks including emissions from burning coal, oil, and gas—is intensified by hotter temperatures. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for setting exposure limits, but the agency’s models often don’t account for compounding circumstances or cumulative impacts. While the EPA sets some legal limits for ozone, for example, outdoor workers are frequently exposed to smog and extreme temperatures simultaneously. From a health risk perspective, “the sum is often greater than the parts,” Limaye says.

As heat rises, who will protect farmworkers?

By Bridget Huber, Nancy Averett and Teresa Cotsirilos - Food & Environment Reporting Network, June 29, 2022

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 Fahrenheit 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 F 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. 

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.

This summer, rising temperatures cause concern for agricultural workers

By Yesica Balderrama - Prism, June 22, 2022

Josue Josue has been a farmworker all his life. The 34-year-old immigrant from Mexico has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, picking produce like grapes, tomatoes, yams, and tobacco. He has worked in Florida, New Jersey, and California during extreme cold and hot weather, and he has experienced firsthand the impact that rising temperatures can have on agricultural workers—especially in the last few years.

”Every year it gets hotter,” Josue said. “Before I didn’t notice it, and now it’s unbearable.”

Josue works in North Carolina and has noticed unpredictable weather patterns, an increasingly felt effect of climate change. According to National Geographic, weather catastrophes such as heat waves, droughts, and ice storms have become more frequent during the last four decades. The most vulnerable areas are coastal and mountainous regions. Josue said that three years ago two hurricanes flooded the season’s crops, the following year’s crops were affected by a drought, and last year they had the opposite problem. 

“There were heavy rains, and we couldn’t grow anything,” he said.

The increasingly volatile and extreme weather has been affecting Josue’s health. After working in high temperatures outdoors, he feels exhausted and has regular stomach aches and dizziness. These are common symptoms of heat stress, which also include dehydration, nausea, and heat stroke, the leading cause of work-related death in farmworkers. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 815 workers died from heat exposure between 1992 and 2017. For farmworkers, heat can negatively impact their cognitive performance and behavior and threaten their overall well-being. Many agricultural workers also experience respiratory issues caused by exposure to pesticides, dust, and fungi.

A paper published in the Environmental Research Letters revealed the global number of agricultural workers has decreased due to rising temperatures. “Heat stress among farmworkers is becoming more prevalent as temperatures continue to rise,” said Alexis Guild, the director of health policy and programs at Farmworker Justice, an organization created to protect agricultural workers’ rights. “Farmworkers generally are not provided adequate protection.”

Webinar: Extreme Heat; Protecting Public Health and the Economy in California’s Central Valley

By Irene Calimlim, Dr Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida, Elizabeth Strater, Kimberly Warmsley, et. al. - The Climate Center, June 8, 2022

Over the past few years, extreme heat episodes have been on the increase throughout California and especially in the Central Valley. Home to 4.3 million Californians and nearly one million people working in agriculture, the Central Valley faced more than 35 days of extreme heat in 2021. This number is expected to double in the next few decades. In this webinar, presenters will discuss the impact on Central Valley residents, workers, and the agricultural sector, along with how to build community resilience in the face of these climate-fueled hazards.

Spanish interpretation brought to you by Linguística Interpreting & Translation.

En los últimos años, los episodios de calor extremo han ido en aumento en todo California y especialmente en el Valle Central. California es hogar a 4.3 millones y casi un millón de personas que trabajan en la agricultura, el Valle Central enfrentó más de 35 días de calor extremo en el 2021. Se espera que este número se duplique en las próximas décadas. En esta videoconferencia, los presentadores analizarán el impacto en los residentes, los trabajadores y el sector agrícola del Valle Central, además de cómo desarrollar la resiliencia de la comunidad frente a estos peligros provocados por el clima.

Interpretación en español presentada por Linguística Interpreting & Translation.

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