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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Heat, the main threat to agricultural workers: Stanford specialists

By Olivia Wynkoop. Bay City News
Photography: Manuel Ortiz

As the world faces an increase in the duration, frequency and intensity of heat waves, a panel of Stanford academics and other experts discussed the risk of extreme heat as a threat to agricultural workers in a webinar on climate resilience Thursday.

The average number of days U.S. farmworkers will spend working in unsafe conditions will double by mid-century, according to a 2020 study by a research scientist at Stanford. Coupled with a lack of federal protections, extreme heat can be deadly for farmworkers exposed outdoors all day, panelists said.

Lead researcher Noah Diffenbaugh said that a small amount of warming can cause a large change in both the frequency and severity of heat waves. 

Places are getting warmer in general, and atmospheric pressure patterns that create heat waves are occurring more frequently and with greater intensity. That's why summers have felt much hotter than they did 10 to 20 years ago.  

"The kinds of events we've seen this summer and in previous summers, it's not just our imagination or the effects of social media and mainstream media making us aware that it's hot in many different places at once," Diffenbaugh said. "It's actually true."

And the gap between what is happening and what communities are prepared for is widening, he said. With more heat comes less water resources, more wildfires and poorer air quality due to changes in atmospheric circulation. Low-wage farm workers are often at the mercy of the elements, despite the health consequences, simply because there is no other option.

Heat, a threat to agricultural workers

"I used to be a real optimist about adaptation. A decade ago...I was very optimistic that, by investing in economic development and human development, we could generate the resources that would follow, but I was wrong about that," he said.  

Stanford health expert Michele Barry said this is a health equity issue at its core.

"Low-wage outdoor workers whose work could be cancelled due to weather impacts can't necessarily endure many days without pay, and people may continue to work due to financial needs, even if it's not a healthy option," Barry stressed in a question-and-answer session before the event.

"Many low-wage outdoor workers also do not have access to the same healthcare resources as higher-income populations, which is especially unfair given the outsized impacts of climate change on their health," he added.

Eriberto Fernandez, of the farmworker advocacy group United Farm Workers Foundation, said there has been progress in the state; for example, there are now tents and shaded trucks next to fields where there were none a decade ago.  

There is also a state policy in place to ensure that employers respond effectively to symptoms of heat illness, which came about after a 17-year-old pregnant girl died of heat exhaustion while picking grapes in Lodi in 2008.  

"Her story, unfortunately, is not unique to her. It is a story that many people in the farming community know, because it is not an isolated event," Fernandez said.

He still considers heat to be the number one killer farmworkers face, because despite state regulations, safety violations go largely unreported. Fernandez calls on oversight agencies to improve staffing of outreach teams and provide resources in multiple languages to be a competent resource for the community.

Heat threatens agricultural workers

"Farmworkers, most of whom are undocumented, have a real fear of the authorities. These agencies, as well-intentioned as they are, are seen as the authorities," he said.

Fernandez also believes that state policy should be backed by federal standards. As it stands, there is no federal heat standard that protects farmworkers from extreme conditions.

"It's mind-boggling to think that at this stage, with the increasing impacts of climate change, we still don't have a federal standard that ensures that farmworkers and all outdoor workers have meaningful workplace protections," he abounded.  

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