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Farmworker health and climate change

Farmworker health and climate change
© Getty Images

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government quickly deemed farmworkers “essential” in order to assure the durability of the nation’s food supply. 

As infection rates skyrocketed, farmworkers endured exceedingly dangerous working conditions due in large part to inadequate access to personal protective equipment (PPE), crowded housing and transportation to and from worksites. At the same time, farmworkers were denied access to basic public health protections and suffered some of the country’s highest COVID-19 infection and fatality rates. In addition, farmworkers faced barriers to access COVID-19 testing and immunization.

This incongruity isn’t unique to the pandemic; it’s a reflection of longstanding inequities in our food system. Farm and agricultural workers are excluded from many of the protections afforded to workers in other industries — a system rooted in discriminatory Jim Crow-era policies and perpetuated through the Bracero Program, the Immigration and Nationality Act and H-2 visa program, and the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The legacies of these exploitative policies persist in our continued failure to protect farmworkers while relying on their skills for  basic sustenance. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to face a growing crisis: climate change. Now that policymakers have acknowledged how “essential” farmworkers are, what will they do to protect these workers in the face of a warming planet and increased risk at work?

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Farmworkers are undeniably on the climate change frontlines. Last September, striking images emerged of workers picking crops in front of a backdrop of wildfires — a result of increasing heat and dry conditions that are causing more intense fire seasons. The associated smoke exposure and unhealthy air quality leaves farmworkers vulnerable to acute and chronic illnesses such as heart disease, asthma and other respiratory issues. These issues are compounded by regular exposure to pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that farmworkers suffer 300,000 acute illnesses from pesticide exposure each year, while chronic illnesses such as cancer, neurological effects, respiratory damage, metabolic effects and DNA damage caused by pesticides are rampant. Rising temperatures will encourage the proliferation of pests and potentially increase pesticide use and volatility, worsening pesticide-related illness among farmworkers. 

Farmworkers also die from heat exposure at a rate nearly 20 times that of all civilian workers in the U.S. — and fields are only getting hotter. Average temperatures in most states in the U.S. appear to be increasing, while 2020 tied for the hottest year on record. A recent review of research on public health threats that farmworkers face found that heat-related illness is very common among farmworkers, and the risks associated with working for long periods of time under extreme weather conditions are likely to worsen. Despite these threats, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency regulating workplace safety and health, has failed to implement an enforceable heat safety standard. That leaves states to fill in the gaps.Yet only three states — California, Minnesota and Washington — have adopted any standards to combat heat-related illness on farms. 

Policymakers can and must take action to confront these growing public health crises. A national heat safety standard addressing acclimatization, temperature, proximity to shade and water, and more frequent breaks is far overdue. The proposed Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, named after a farmworker who died from heat stroke after picking grapes for 10 hours in 105-degree heat, would compel OSHA to establish enforceable standards protecting workers from heat — a step in the right direction. Other laws or regulatory actions that restrict the use of the most dangerous pesticides — such as the requirement that the EPA either ban all food-related uses of chlorpyrifos or prove its safety — are urgently needed to save lives.

Because farmworkers have first-hand experience with the realities of a changing climate, their  participation and leadership is critical to any solution. Of the 2.4 million farmworkers in the U.S., the average worker has worked 16 years in the industry and is highly skilled. Farmworkers have organized for increased pay and protections and are often the most well-equipped to determine what changes in policies and practices will best protect them from workplace health risks. For example, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina has recovered thousands of dollars in stolen wages, and farmworkers have worked with organizations such as Pesticide Action Network North America to collect research samples in fields, homes and other areas to generate data and hold growers and government regulators accountable. 

Policies that protect occupational health must also be coupled with structural interventions that address the root causes that make farmworkers vulnerable to negative health impacts: from increasing farmworker wages to reflect the highly skilled nature of their work; providing legal protection and representation to all farmworkers; ensuring access to adequate sanitation and work breaks; and holding employers accountable to provide safe working conditions through increased industry oversight. Our food system, agricultural communities and collective wellbeing will be more resilient in the face of climate change when workers receive the rights, protections and compensation they have fought for and deserve. 

Sarah Goldman, Former Sr. Research Program Coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, is the lead author of a recent report on the health risks farmworkers face. Laurie Beyranevand, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, is the lead author of a recent report on laws and policies that address heat and pesticide exposure on farms.