On a Tuesday in June, Luis Cisneros stood on a metal ladder harvesting cherries in Washington's fertile Columbia Basin when temperatures reached almost 120 degrees Fahrenheit. After just a few minutes in the sun, the ladder became searingly hot to the touch. Cisnero, who is 20, has spent the past six years picking fruit in Washington's fields—a job that has helped him to pay for college without stressing family finances. But that day’s heat was like nothing he’d experienced before.
"I feel like every year during the summer, the air quality becomes bad from wildfire, and the heat makes it worse," Cisneros says. He’s one of more than 97,000 people picking apples, potatoes, hops, cherries, grapes, onions, and other crops in Washington, and now grappling with unprecedented working conditions brought on by the climate crisis.
Extreme heat is one of the most dangerous of these conditions. The monster heat wave that struck the Pacific Northwest this year from June 26 to July 2 killed 95 people in Washington State alone. In May and June, 3,504 people visited emergency rooms across the region for heat-related illnesses.
Wildfire seasons in the western United States have also grown longer and more severe in recent decades, compounding the public health threat by exposing millions to toxic air pollutants in wildfire smoke. Washington is currently under a state of emergency, with 600 wildfires reported so far this year, which is double the normal rate.
Researchers have found that Washington’s farmworkers are especially vulnerable to extreme heat and to fine particulate matter, one of the deadliest air pollutants. The problems are compounded by their disproportionate exposure to toxic pesticides, which leads to chronic headaches, nausea, asthma, and other breathing difficulties. Despite the risks, the workers often have no choice but to show up to their jobs. Living paycheck to paycheck, workers "want their hours and don't want to lose an opportunity to work," says Zaira Sanchez, the emergency relief coordinator for the United Farm Workers (UFW) Foundation, a nonprofit mobilizing farmworkers nationwide to advocate for better job protections. "But they're pushing themselves beyond their bodies’ limits to make as much as they can to bring home."
A New State Rule
In July, Washington State's Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) issued emergency heat and smoke rules to increase protection for outdoor workers, making it the second state to institute a smoke rule (California became the first in 2019). The new heat stress rule—which California and Oregon also have in place—is an add-on to a heat rule that went into effect in 2008 and asks employers to provide shade and 10-minute paid cooldown breaks every two hours when temperatures reach 100 or above. Temperatures of 89 or above trigger the requirement for cool drinking water and some amount of paid cooldown time. The emergency heat rules are in effect through September 30 and reflect the need for urgent new policies to protect the state’s workers in light of accelerating climate change.
"In 2008, no one was thinking about temperatures above 110 degrees," says Dina Lorraine, who works as a communications consultant for L&I.
Washington’s new smoke-related emergency rule states that once high levels of particulate matter are detected in the air, employers must take steps to reduce their workers’ exposure to the pollution, such as through providing free N95 masks, reducing physical labor intensity, and increasing rest time or work time in an area with filtered air.
“The long-term health impacts from heat and smoke are extremely concerning," Sanchez says. But by necessity, farmworkers are often more focused on the present day. “Even if it's not good for their health now, they have to provide for today." Those who are paid based on productivity versus on an hourly basis may also push themselves to work harder and faster and take fewer breaks.
During the last brutal heat wave, an outreach team of UFW Foundation employees visited workers on Washington orchards and farms, handing out fliers and ice-cold bottles of water. One man they spoke to had been at work all day in temperatures that reached 117 degrees, his long pants and long-sleeve shirt soaked with sweat, making him appear as if he'd just jumped into the nearby river.
As they downed water, workers shared how their days had changed. Some had to cut shifts short due to heat—and lost precious wages. Others went in at 6 a.m. and had to wrap up by noon. Workers typically need to agree on the group's hours. Those with families tend to want to finish earlier, while young, single men tend to want to stay later. Some employers can't allow farmworkers to come in early—say, before sunrise—due to lack of field lighting.
Changes are predicted to worsen as this summer’s extremes become the norm. In its Sixth Assessment Report released this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that global average temperatures will increase by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by midcentury. There could be a 67 percent increase in hot days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. The group also forecasts that the total area of Washington ravaged by fires may double by the 2040s and triple by the 2080s due to less rainfall and higher temperatures.
Health and Humanity
The state’s Department of Health acknowledges that Washington summers are getting longer, hotter, and potentially more dangerous.
"We already see impacts of weather on farmworker health," says June Spector, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and medicine at the University of Washington. She adds that lack of shade and opportunities to remove non-breathable PPE safely can worsen the effects of extreme heat, and that restrooms located far from working areas (which can discourage adequate hydration) can compound the risks.
If left untreated, heat exhaustion and other heat illnesses can progress to heatstroke, when the body’s temperature rises to dangerous levels. Once it sets in, sweating stops, and a worker could have a rapid heartbeat, headache, and disorientation. Without emergency treatment, they can experience multi-organ failure and death. Meanwhile, the contaminants in wildfire smoke can exacerbate asthma, impact the heart and lungs when inhaled, and even lead to premature death for those with underlying conditions. There’s also been a recent association between fine particulate matter and dementia.
In hot conditions, workers are also at increased risk for injuries and accidents such as falls, according to research by Spector. A worker's stability and ability to concentrate may be impaired by the heat, along with dehydration and fatigue. “Fortunately, most workers with a heat illness are treated in an emergency room with rehydration, then observed and released,” says Dr. Dave Bonauto, director of research at Washington State's L&I.
In June, before the new heat rule was enacted, the UFW Foundation surveyed 2,176 Washington State agricultural workers by text. The findings: More than half of those surveyed said they'd experienced a symptom associated with heat illness while working, including heavy sweating, nausea, muscle cramps, headache, and fainting. While most employers were conforming to requirements in place at the time to protect their workers, a significant number were not. The data collected showed that 40 percent of the surveyed farmworkers did not have access to shade, and 18 percent were given only one work break. Cool water wasn’t provided for a quarter of them. Cisneros, then, was one of the lucky ones: His employer provided ice-cold water for hydration, tree shade for breaks, and the option to leave if the heat was too much.
Although Washington’s new rules should help improve heat regulations for all, there are concerns about enforceability. "Just because there's a law doesn't necessarily mean that employers are following it," says Leydy Rangel, the UFW Foundation’s national communications manager. Workers deserve the right to feel confident in speaking up and reporting workplace issues, she notes, without fear of retaliation—which, for the undocumented, could mean job loss, deportation, and family separation.
The heat is just one of many challenges that farmworkers face. In 2020, the UFW Foundation launched a call center to help farmworkers with financial assistance, vaccination appointments, and workers’ rights issues. The center assists workers in reporting violations to occupational health agencies in Washington, Oregon, and California.
Farmworkers may return home to places that offer little relief in the way of cooling—a circumstance that Rangel can relate to. She grew up in a California agricultural community without air-conditioning and watched her parents work in the fields and then return to a hot home. "It's so vital for farmworkers to rest, have breaks, and cool down,” she says. “The majority don't get that, so you never cool down."
Many farmworkers in Washington are employed through the H-2A visa program and live in temporary housing. While Oregon just put new rules in place that require employers to address hot conditions in agricultural labor housing, Washington has yet to do the same.
On the Frontlines
Washington State L&I has committed to updating the permanent heat and smoke rules in the future—with input from various stakeholders, including the public and farmworker advocacy groups. But if that permanent rule isn’t completed, the temporary heat rule will be in effect next summer, too, and the smoke rule will remain year-round.
"We're reaching out to the agricultural community, but there are always ways to improve," Lorraine says. L&I's delivery system has sent heat-related alerts and information in English and Spanish to agricultural employers and workers and other groups that face disproportionate impacts from extreme heat, such as construction workers. The department has also found success with Spanish-language radio and television programs in eastern Washington.
The extra effort seems to be paying off and saving lives. According to official records, the heat wave earlier this summer sent only one worker—a road flagger—to the hospital; later in July, a Yakima Valley hops worker died from heat exposure.
But beyond Washington, climate change at the current pace could double the risk that U.S. crop workers face by the middle of this century, Spector notes. "Safeguarding the health and well-being of U.S. crop workers will require systemic change beyond the worker and workplace levels," she says. So advocates emphasize that state-by-state efforts can’t take the place of national standards. "Workers deserve to be protected from heat, and enforcing heat standards across state lines can be confusing,” Rangel notes.
Earlier this year, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021 was introduced to the House and Senate, which would direct the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop an enforceable heat safety standard for both indoor and outdoor workers. The bill is named in honor of Asunción Valdivia, who in 2004 had been picking grapes for 10 hours in 105-degree temperatures before falling unconscious. His employer didn't call an ambulance. Instead, he told Valdivia's son to drive his father home. Valdivia died en route at the age of 53.
"Farmworkers are on the frontline of climate change," Rangel says. "This is just the beginning."
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