Science Policy

Heat Hazards and Migrant Rights: Protecting Agricultural Workers in a Changing Climate

06.06.24 | 17 min read | Text by Keana Kaleikini

KEY TAKEAWAYS

KEY FACTS


In 2008, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17-year-old pregnant farmworker, tragically died from heatstroke while working in the vineyards of California. Despite laboring for more than nine hours in the sweltering heat, Maria was denied access to shade and adequate water breaks. Management never called 911 and instructed her fiancé to lie about the events. To this day, her death underscores the dire need for robust protections for those who endure extreme conditions to feed our nation.

This heartbreaking incident is not isolated. With the United States shattering over a thousand temperature records last year, the crisis of heat-related illnesses in the agricultural sector is intensifying. Rising global temperatures are making heat waves more frequent and severe, posing a significant threat to farmworkers who are essential to our food supply. There is a pressing need for comprehensive heat safety regulations to safeguard our food production and protect farmworkers from the intensifying threats of climate change. As individual stories shed light on the real-life tragedies of neglecting climate resilience, broader climate trends reveal a significant rise in these risks, affecting agricultural workers nationwide.

Climate change & agriculture

Rising Temperatures

Climate change poses significant challenges to global agricultural systems, threatening food security, livelihoods, and the overall sustainability of farming practices. Among the various climate-related hazards, rising temperatures stand out as a primary concern for agricultural productivity and worker health and safety. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the average temperature in the United States has increased by 1.8°F over the past century, with the most significant increases occurring in the last few decades. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global average temperatures have been steadily increasing due to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, primarily from human activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation. This warming trend is expected to continue, critically impacting agricultural operations worldwide. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that by mid-century, the average number of days with a heat index above 100°F in the United States will more than double, severely impacting agricultural productivity and worker health. As the climate continues to change, the direct threats to those who supply our food become increasingly severe, particularly for farmworkers exposed to the elements.

Threats to Farmworkers

In agriculture, rising temperatures worsen challenges like water scarcity, soil degradation, and pest infestations, and introduce new risks like heat stress for farmworkers. As temperatures rise, heatwaves become more frequent, intense, and prolonged, posing serious threats to the health and well-being of agricultural workers who perform physically demanding tasks outdoors. Heat stress can lead to heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke, which can be life-threatening if not properly managed. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can impair cognitive function, reduce productivity, and increase the risk of accidents and injuries in the workplace. According to the Public Citizen, from 2000 to 2010, as many as 2,000 workers  died each year from heat-related causes in the United States, while farmworkers are 20 times more likely to die from heat-related illnesses than other workers.

Given the critical role of agricultural workers in food production and supply chains, protecting their health and safety in the face of escalating heat risks is critical. Comprehensive heat safety standards and regulations are essential to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change on farmworkers and ensure the sustainability and resilience of agricultural operations. By implementing comprehensive heat safety measures such as heat acclimatization guidelines, shade access, and regular rest breaks, agricultural employers can minimize the risk of heat-related illnesses and injuries. Effective heat standard implementation requires collaboration among policymakers, industry stakeholders, and worker advocacy groups to address climate change challenges and protect agricultural workers. Beyond the direct effects of heat, farmworkers also face compounded environmental hazards that further jeopardize their health and safety.

Compounded Hazards

While the focus of this discussion is on heat safety regulations, it’s important to recognize that these regulations intersect with broader environmental and health challenges faced by agricultural workers. High temperatures often coincide with wildfire seasons, leading to increased exposure to wildfire smoke. This overlap amplifies health risks like respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, disproportionately affecting workers with vulnerable conditions. Effective protection against these compounded hazards requires coordination among policymakers and industry leaders. Comprehensive standards and holistic safety measures are crucial to mitigate the risks associated with heat and to address the broader spectrum of environmental pollutants. While environmental hazards are a significant concern, the specific vulnerabilities of migrant workers introduce additional layers of risk and complexity.

Challenges faced by migrant workers

Recognizing these challenges is only the first step; next, we must assess how current protections measure up and where they fall short in safeguarding these vulnerable populations.

Understanding the Vulnerabilities

Migrant agricultural workers face socioeconomic, legal, and environmental challenges that increase their vulnerability to heat hazards. Economically, many migrant workers endure low wages and lack access to adequate healthcare, which complicates their ability to cope with and recover from heat-related illnesses. A study by the National Center for Farmworker Health found that 85% of migrant workers earn less than the federal poverty level, making it difficult for them to access necessary medical care. Legally, the fragile status of many migrant workers, including those on temporary visas or without documentation, exacerbates their vulnerability. These workers often hesitate to report violations or seek help due to fear of retaliation, job loss, or deportation.

Harsh Working Conditions

Additionally, migrant workers frequently labor in conditions that provide minimal protection against the elements. Excessive heat exposure is compounded by inadequate access to water, shade, and breaks, making outdoor work particularly dangerous during heatwaves. Furthermore, many migrant workers return after work to substandard housing that lacks essential cooling or ventilation, preventing effective recovery from daily heat exposure and exacerbating dehydration and heat-related health risks. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, about 40% of migrant farmworkers in the United States live in homes without air conditioning.

Barriers to Protection

The barriers to effective heat protection for migrant workers are extensive and complex, which may prevent them from accessing crucial protections and resources, including:

Language Diversity. The migrant worker community is incredibly diverse, encompassing individuals from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In the U.S. agricultural sector, over 50% of workers report limited English proficiency. This diversity may present a significant challenge to understand their rights and the safety measures available to them. Even when regulations and protections are in place, the communication of these policies often fails to reach non-English speaking workers effectively, leading to misunderstandings that can prevent them from advocating for their safety and well-being. The National Agricultural Workers Survey reports that 77% of farmworkers in the United States are foreign-born, with 68% primarily speaking Spanish, highlighting the language barriers that complicate effective communication of safety regulations.

Vulnerable Visas & Immigration Status. Visa statuses and undocumented immigration also play a critical role in the vulnerability of migrant workers. Workers holding temporary visas, such as H-2A visas, often face precarious employment conditions because these visas tie them to specific employers, limiting their ability to assert their rights without fear of retaliation. Undocumented workers are particularly susceptible to exploitation and abuse by employers who may use their immigration status as leverage. Fear of deportation and legal repercussions further discourages reporting workplace incidents, perpetuating a cycle of exploitation and vulnerability.

Undocumented workers are particularly susceptible to exploitation and abuse by employers who may use their immigration status as leverage

via Tim Mossholder

Farmworker Housing. Farmworker housing often lacks proper cooling or ventilation, increasing heat exposure risks during off-work hours. Many agricultural workers live in substandard housing characterized by overcrowding, poor insulation, and inadequate access to air conditioning or ventilation systems. Poor living conditions worsen heat-related illnesses, particularly during extreme weather. Limited access to cooling amenities after long hours of outdoor labor exacerbates heat stress and heightens the health risks associated with heat exposure.

Recognizing these challenges is only the first step; next, we must assess how current protections measure up and where they fall short in safeguarding these vulnerable populations.

Review of existing protections

Federal Efforts

With climate change increasing heat wave frequency and intensity, the need for comprehensive heat safety standards is more urgent than ever. Currently, there is no overarching federal mandate specifically addressing heat exposure, leaving significant gaps in worker protection, especially for vulnerable populations like migrant workers. 

However, efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to establish a federal heat standard signify a potential shift towards more sweeping protections. These proposed regulations are expected to mandate preventive measures like adequate hydration, shade access, and sufficient rest breaks, with training on recognizing and responding to heat-related illnesses.

State-Level Protections

At the state level, the scenario is mixed, with states like California, Washington, and Oregon having implemented their own heat safety regulations, which provide a model for other states and potentially for federal standards. Oregon’s regulations, for instance, require employers to provide drinking water, access to shade, and adequate rest periods during high heat conditions. These measures are designed not just to respond to the immediate needs of workers but also to educate them on the risks of heat exposure and the importance of self-care in high temperatures. When Oregon implemented stricter heat safety standards, it saw a significant reduction in heat-related illnesses reported among agricultural workers. By requiring more frequent breaks, adequate hydration, and access to shade, Oregon’s regulations demonstrate how well-designed policies can decrease the incidence of heat stress and related medical emergencies. California has also taken a comprehensive approach with its Heat Illness Prevention Program, which extends protections to both outdoor and indoor workers, reflecting the broad scope of heat hazards. This program is noted for its requirements, including training programs that educate workers on preventing heat illness, emergency response strategies, and the necessity of acclimatization.

Legislative Challenges & Need for Unified Approach

Conversely, legislative actions in states like Florida and Texas represent a significant challenge to advancements in occupational heat safety. For example, Florida’s HB 433, recently signed into law, expressly prohibits local governments from enacting regulations that would mandate workplace protections against heat exposure. This legislation stalls progress and endangers workers by blocking local standards tailored to the state’s specific needs.

The contradiction between states pushing for more stringent protections and those opposing regulatory measures illustrates a fragmented approach that could undermine worker safety nationwide. Without a federal standard, the protection a worker receives is largely dependent on state policies, which may not adequately address the specific risks associated with heat exposure in increasingly hot climates. This patchwork of regulations underscores the importance of a unified federal standard that could provide consistent and enforceable protections across all states, ensuring that no worker, regardless of geographical location, is left vulnerable to the dangers of heat exposure.

With an understanding of the gaps in current heat safety regulations, the next crucial step is fostering effective stakeholder engagement to drive meaningful changes.

Engaging Stakeholders: Beyond Public Comment

Effective stakeholder engagement requires moving beyond traditional engagement methods to ensure that those most impacted by policies, like agricultural workers, have their voices heard. Many existing engagement methods fail to capture valuable insights due to limited accessibility and logistical barriers. Regulatory agencies must rethink their strategies to include more direct and inclusive approaches, empowering workers to contribute meaningfully to policies that directly affect their safety and well-being.

Challenges in Traditional Engagement

The traditional approaches to stakeholder engagement, particularly in regulatory settings, often rely heavily on formal mechanisms like public comment periods. While these methods are structured to gather feedback, they frequently fall short of engaging those most impacted by the policies—namely, the workers themselves. Many workers, especially in labor-intensive sectors like agriculture, may not have the time, resources, or knowledge to participate in these processes. Relying on online submissions or weekday meetings during work hours can exclude many workers whose insights are crucial for shaping effective regulations. A survey conducted by the Migrant Clinicians Network found that fewer than 10% of migrant workers had participated in any form of public comment or feedback process related to workplace safety.

The complexities of these workers’ lives—ranging from language barriers to fear of retaliation—mean that conventional engagement strategies may not effectively reach or address their concerns. This gap highlights a critical need for regulatory bodies to rethink and expand their engagement strategies to include more direct and inclusive methods.

As we push for broader and more inclusive engagement, we must also consider systemic improvements that can solidify these efforts into lasting safety standards.

Looking Forward: Systemic Improvements & Community Collaboration

Protecting migrant workers from extreme heat requires systemic improvements and a coordinated approach to address gaps in current regulations and foster collaborative efforts among stakeholders. By combining the strengths of government agencies, employers, and community advocates, we can develop robust solutions of heat safety which protect the well-being of vulnerable workers while supporting the productivity and resilience of the agricultural industry.

Systemic Changes Needed

To effectively protect migrant workers from the dangers of extreme heat, systematic changes are required. On the regulatory side, this includes boosting the human resources and funding available to agencies like OSHA to ensure they can effectively implement and enforce new heat safety standards. Building robust infrastructure for enforcement and consultation is crucial, as is ensuring these bodies can handle the demands of new regulatory programs. From the employer and industry perspective, federal support is essential. Incentives such as tax breaks or reimbursement programs similar to those provided under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act during the COVID-19 pandemic could motivate employers to adhere more strictly to safety standards, knowing they can recoup some costs associated with implementing safety measures like paid sick leave.

Fostering a Safe Reporting Culture

Creating a workplace that encourages safe and open communication is vital. Employers must be encouraged to establish non-retaliatory policies and to offer regular training sessions that educate workers about their rights and the importance of reporting safety violations. Reporting mechanisms should protect employee anonymity to reduce fear of retaliation. These practices can improve safety, while also enhancing worker retention and morale, contributing to a healthier workplace culture.

Role of Community & Grassroots Advocacy

Grassroots organizations and community advocates play a pivotal role in shaping and enforcing heat safety regulations. These groups often have direct insights into the needs and challenges of workers on the ground and can help tailor educational and enforcement strategies to the community context. Collaborations with these organizations can facilitate the delivery of multilingual training and legal assistance, ensuring that workers are well-informed about their rights and the safety measures in place to protect them. Additionally, these partnerships can help to monitor compliance and gather grassroots feedback on the efficacy of the regulatory measures. A notable example is the partnership between California Rural Legal Assistance and local farming communities to develop heat stress prevention training tailored to the languages and cultures of the workers. This program has improved knowledge and awareness of heat stress risks among workers, and has also empowered them to take proactive steps in managing their health during extreme conditions. Evaluations of this initiative show a marked improvement in both the adoption of safety practices and worker satisfaction, highlighting the importance of community-driven approaches in policy implementation.

To support these systemic changes, strategic investments are essential, not only to enhance regulatory capacity but to ensure the long-term health and productivity of the agricultural workforce.

The Power of Investment

Investing in heat safety offers strategic, far-reaching benefits for both workers and employers alike. By funding regulatory frameworks and workplace safety programs, organizations can effectively mitigate the impact of heat-related illnesses and injuries. Such investments can enhance regulatory agencies’ capacity to enforce standards while creating safer, more productive work environments that benefit businesses and employees. An investment approach to heat safety strengthens economic sustainability, worker well-being, and industry compliance.

By funding regulatory frameworks and workplace safety programs, organizations can effectively mitigate the impact of heat-related illnesses and injuries.

via Tim Mossholder

Envisioning Enhanced Regulatory Capacity

In the pursuit of more effective heat safety regulations, one critical aspect overlooked is the role of increased investment in regulatory agencies like OSHA. An addition of resources into these bodies is not merely a bureaucratic expansion but a potential lifesaver. Research consistently demonstrates that increased funding for regulatory enforcement can significantly enhance compliance and improve safety outcomes. This investment empowers agencies to provide greater education and outreach, conduct more inspections, and enforce compliance more effectively, which are essential for protecting workers from heat-related hazards. Enhancing the capacity of organizations like OSHA to enforce heat safety standards saves lives, while supporting economic efficiency and sustainability in labor-intensive industries. These investments ensure that safety regulations evolve from paper to practice, significantly impacting the lives of those they are designed to protect.

Economic Benefit

Economic analyses further support the notion that investing in worker safety is not just a cost but a strategic benefit. Studies show that every dollar spent on improving workplace safety yields substantial returns in reducing the costs of workplace injuries and deaths. For instance, implementing stringent heat safety measures not only reduces the incidence of heat-related illnesses but also cuts down on associated costs such as medical expenses, workers’ compensation, and lost workdays. This is particularly relevant in sectors like agriculture, where the physical nature of the work increases vulnerability to heat stress. The economic benefit for employers extends beyond direct cost savings. Maintaining a safe work environment enhances a company’s reputation, aids in employee retention, and increases productivity. Workers are more likely to stay with an employer they trust to prioritize their health and safety, which is crucial in industries facing labor shortages. A culture that encourages reporting and promptly addresses safety concerns can significantly reduce the risk of severe injuries and fatalities, further lowering potential liabilities and insurance costs.

Employer Benefit

A compelling example of the benefits of proactive safety measures is the Gold Star Grower Program in North Carolina. This program recognizes agricultural employers who provide housing that  meets and exceeds the requirements of the Migrant Housing Act of North Carolina. This recognition serves as a badge of honor, indicating to potential employees that these employers value worker well-being. Reports suggest that workers actively seek out employers with this certification, preferring to work in environments where their health and safety are a priority. A preference like this can drive more growers to participate in safety programs, fostering a broader culture of safety and compliance within the industry.

Call for Collaborative Action

As the climate crisis continues, so does the threat of heat exposure to agricultural workers, posing grave risks to their health and to the core of our food supply systems. The necessity for comprehensive heat safety measures is now both urgent and undeniable. 

Governments at every level, employers across industries, community groups, and the workers themselves must unite to create resilient, practical strategies that prioritize safety and health. The cost of inaction is stark, exceeding $100 billion annually— not only affecting the economy but leading to the irreplaceable loss of life and well-being. 

We are at a critical juncture which demands a unified, strong response to heat hazards. By adopting systemic improvements and fostering a culture of collaboration and proactive communication, we have the opportunity to safeguard those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate threats.  

It is time to advocate for and implement rigorous heat safety regulations that are long overdue. Let’s mobilize, from grassroots movements to national policy reforms, to protect our workers and secure our collective future. The consequences of delay are immense, and while the solutions present challenges, they are within our reach. Engage with advocacy groups, push for legislative changes, and participate in community efforts to raise awareness and implement effective heat safety programs.  

For resources on how you can support these critical efforts, please refer to the guides provided in Appendix A and B, which offer strategies for advocacy, community engagement, and policy development. Together, our collective efforts can protect our most vulnerable and build a resilient path forward in the face of climate change.


APPENDIX A: RESOURCE GUIDE

Further information and support on heat-related safety and worker rights

Resources for Migrant Workers

Resources for Employers

Resources for Policymakers


APPENDIX B: ACTION GUIDE

Support Legislative Changes

Participate in Advocacy Efforts

Engage in Policy Development