Climate change increases stress for agricultural workers on the front lines of global warming

Mily Trevino-Sauceda was 9 years old when her mother fell while working to move irrigation pipes along rows of potatoes and alfalfa on an Idaho farm. Mily’s 10-year-old brother doused their mother’s face and body with water as her children watched, scared and crying. Their mother had fainted from the heat and could no longer work as fast or as long in the sun.

Decades later, memory lives on for Trevino-Sauceda, who says few systemic changes have been made to protect farmworkers from extreme heat.

“Knowing that all of this is still happening is angering me,” said Trevino-Sauceda, now executive director of Alianza de Campesinas, a farmworker organization based in Oxnard, Calif. “It irritates because we know what it’s like to do this kind of work. And even though we want to be faithful to do a good job, we don’t even think at that time whether we are treated as human beings or not. We just want to survive it.

As Earth this week set and then repeatedly broke unofficial records for average global heat, it served as a reminder of the danger that climate change is steadily worsening for farm workers and others who work outdoors. Heat advisories and excessive heat warnings have been rolled out across much of the United States, and farms in Oregon, Texas and much of the southern and central parts of the country are expected to see highs reaching 100 next week.

According to the National Institutes of Health, agricultural workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other industries, but there are no federal heat standards that guarantee their health and safety. .

California is one of the few states to have adopted its own standards. These include keeping fresh, cool water nearby; provide access to shade; and monitor workers for health issues when the temperature rises above 95 degrees, according to the United Farm Workers Foundation.

Edgar Franks describes working on farms in the heat as “a matter of life and death.” Like Trevino-Sauceda, he remembers all his life being hot and uncomfortable in the fields where he and his family worked, having first grown up in Texas while working. in citrus and watermelon, and later in Washington State in cauliflower, cucumber, raspberry and blueberry fields.

“There’s no escaping it,” he said of exposure to the elements during his 20 years in the industry. “It doesn’t matter if you’re, you know, covered head to toe like the best ventilated clothes or wearing hats and stuff, or a T-shirt or whatever, it’s going to be hot no matter what. “

Franks still works in the berry fields in Washington, but is also the political director of the farmworkers union Familias Unidas por la Justicia. He has followed climate change for a long time and remembers being called to a strike in 2017 by dozens of farmworkers in northwestern Washington state. They were protesting poor working conditions, including working in sweltering heat and smoky conditions caused by forest fires in Canada.

“It’s not normal to go through these heat waves and, you know, act like nothing’s wrong,” he said. “And we just continue to normalize that, then, and nothing will be done to protect workers.”

Climate change makes extreme heat more likely and intense. Agricultural work is particularly dangerous because workers increase their internal body temperature by moving, lifting and walking while exposed to high heat and humidity, said Dr. Jonathan Patz, president of health and safety. environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Pedro Murrieta Baltazar, a sweet corn and vegetable field worker at Way Farms in Waverly, Ohio, said this week that this year’s heat hasn’t hurt him as badly as some previous years. But the farm where he works still takes precautions.

During the summer, they work on one side of the field early in the morning when it’s cooler, then “after that they put us on the other side, where there is more shade,” said Murrieta Baltazar. , speaking in Spanish.

If workers don’t take breaks to shade, drink water and rest, they can experience nausea, vomiting, dehydration, muscle cramps and more – all symptoms of a fever without any infection, said Roxana Chicas, assistant professor. at Emory University Atlanta School of Nursing.

Chicas, who studies the health effects of environmental and occupational exposures on farmworkers, described what it was like to work with fern cutters coming from the fields to have blood drawn for samples, even after their body has had some time to cool down.

“I can feel how hot they are,” Chicas said. “It’s like dissipating their bodies and seeing how their faces are red and their clothes are, you know, soaked in sweat.”

Even though the heat makes life harder for farm workers, unsustainable farming practices also contribute to the emissions that fuel climate extremes. Patz of the University of Wisconsin noted the need to reduce the demand for meat in Western diets. He and Franks both called for changes in agriculture that could use less water and fertilizers and store more carbon that contributes to climate change.

“I think by looking at ways to do agriculture in a more sustainable and regenerative way that’s actually better for the climate and for workers, I think it’s possible,” Franks said.


Follow Melina Walling on Twitter @MelinaWalling.


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