October 4, 2023

Climate change is increasing the pressure on farm workers on the front lines of a warming planet

Mily Trevino-Sauceda was 9 when her mother fell while moving irrigation pipes along rows of potatoes and alfalfa on an Idaho farm. Mily’s 10-year-old brother splashed water over their mother’s face and body as her children watched in fear and crying. Their mother had passed out from the heat and could never work so fast and for so long in the sun again.

Decades later, the memory remains sharp for Trevino-Sauceda, who says few systematic changes have been made to protect farm workers from extreme heat.

“Knowing that all this is still happening makes it angry,” said Trevino-Sauceda, now executive director of Alianza de Campesinas, an organization of women farm workers in Oxnard, California. “It is angry because we know what it is to do this kind of work. And while we want to be loyal to do a good job, at that point we don’t even think about whether we are being treated like human beings or not. We just want to survive.”

As Earth set this week and then repeatedly broke unofficial records for average global heat, it served as a reminder of a danger that climate change is making worse for farm workers and others who work outdoors. Heat warnings and excessive heat warnings were rolled out across much of the US, and farms in Oregon, Texas and much of the country’s southern and central regions were expected to see spikes of 100 next week.

Farm workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other industries, according to the National Institutes of Health, but there is no federal heat standard that guarantees their health and safety.

California is one of the few states that has adopted its own standards. Those include keeping fresh and cool water nearby; providing access to shade; and monitoring workers for health problems when temperatures rise 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”. on citrus and watermelon, and later in Washington State on fields of cauliflower, cucumbers, raspberries and blueberries.

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

Franks still works on berry fields in Washington, but is also the political director of the farm workers’ union Familias Unidas por la Justicia. He has been following climate change for some time and recalls being called on strike by dozens of farm workers in northwestern Washington state in 2017. They protested poor working conditions, including working in oppressive heat and smoky conditions from Canadian wildfires.

“It’s not normal to go through these heat waves and pretend nothing is happening,” he said. “And we just keep normalizing this, and nothing is being done to protect workers.”

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

Pedro Murrieta Baltazar, a worker in sweet corn and vegetable fields at Way Farms in Waverly, Ohio, said this week that this year’s heat hasn’t felt as bad to him as it has in previous years. But the farm where he works is still taking precautions.

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

If workers don’t take breaks to get out of the sun, 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, an assistant professor at the nursing school at Emory University in Atlanta.

Chicas, who studies the health effects of environmental and occupational exposure on farm workers, described what it was like to work with fern cutters who came from the fields to have their blood drawn for samples, even after their bodies had had some time to cool down.

“I can feel how hot they are,” Chicas said. “It’s like letting their bodies disappear and just watching their face turn red and their clothes, you know, soaking wet with sweat.”

While the heat is making life more challenging for farm workers, unsustainable farming practices also contribute to emissions fueling climate extremes. Patz, of the University of Wisconsin, pointed to the need to reduce the demand for meat in Western diets. He and Franks both called for changes in agriculture that use less water and fertilizers and store more carbon that contributes to climate change.

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


Follow Melina Walling on Twitter @MelinaWalling.


The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. Read more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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