June 21st marked the first official day of summer, but that is old news for most of us. Temperatures around the nation’s capital have already reached well over 90 degrees—and for more than just a few days. While it is a small nuisance for those of us working in D.C. suffering through a sweaty commute, it is nothing compared to what farmworkers are exposed to. They work for 10 to 12 hours in the relentless sun and heat, day after day in the fields.
Heat stress has increasingly been getting a lot of media attention, especially after the death of a young farmworker, Maria Isavel, in California. Recently, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis spoke about the importance of preventing heat-related illnesses as the summer begins to heat up. The slogan of this vital initiative, which Department of Labor began promoting this spring, is “water, rest, shade.” The campaign by the Department of Labor’s OSHA aims to reduce the number of heat-related deaths and illnesses.
But why are farmworkers at an elevated risk for heat stress? The obvious reasons are that they perform manual labor in the summer time, often for many hours without shade for protection or taking a break. Additionally, in order to protect themselves from pesticide exposure, farmworkers are supposed to wear long sleeved shirts and pants or even PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), making soaring temperatures even more difficult to tolerate. Water is frequently too far away for the short breaks that they do get. But, there are other reasons why farmworkers are extra sensitive to heat as well—exposure to certain pesticides, such as organophosphates, can cause over sweating, which can lead to overheating.
Furthermore, people who are overweight or have a compromised immune system are at an even greater risk for heat stress. A report on the health of California’s farmworkers found that approximately 80% of farmworkers were overweight or obese, and many farmworkers have compromised immune systems because of pesticide exposure and unhealthy living conditions. (Look out for the June edition of Salud! to learn more about farmworkers and obesity. )
As AFOP’s Proyecto Sol goes into its second summer of providing farmworkers and their employers with trainings on how to recognize and prevent heat-related illnesses, we urge you to remember: heat-related illness is preventable in all of us! So in these hot summer days, stay in the shade, stay hydrated, and keep in mind the thousands of people toiling in the hot sun so that we as Americans have food to eat!