Climate Change and Farmworker Health

The Earth’s climate has become warmer over the past century, a trend that the vast majority of climate scientists attribute to human activity. Warming is expected to continue – a recent study projected the average global temperature will rise between 2.5 and 5.4°F by 2050. Scientists expect global warming to result in an increased occurrence of wildfires, droughts, floods, and species-level extinctions. But what might climate change mean for the well-being of farmworkers in the United States?

As you’ve read in previous blog posts, heat stress is already a tremendous problem for farmworkers, causing illness for many and death for some. We can only expect the problem to worsen as global temperatures rise. Heat-related fatality rates among crop workers in the US have already tripled since the 1990s. A report by the national body charged with researching climate change states that workers in outdoor environments will face increasing risk of heat stress over the coming decades. Unfortunately, there has been little research to date assessing the effects of climate change on occupational health, so we do not yet know how many more cases of heat-related illness and fatality to expect.

Climate change makes it even more imperative that we focus on farmworker health and safety. One of global warming’s side effects may be to actually increase the number of farmworkers in the United States. Higher temperatures will result in significantly declining yields for the most important crops in many developing countries. This could boost U.S. agricultural production as our country exports more crops to make up the difference for the worst affected regions. One of these regions is Mexico. An economic analysis of climate change, crop yields, and migration patterns in Mexico found that millions of struggling farmers will come to the U.S. as climate refugees over the next seventy years. Many of them could take jobs as farmworkers and it is critical that we protect their health and safety.

Most of the talk about climate change has focused on preventing its occurrence by limiting the emission of greenhouse gases. We also have to start planning to mitigate its effects. Luckily, in the case of heat stress, prevention is fairly straightforward. Providing cool water and allowing adequate rest periods in a shaded area are key elements of a heat stress prevention plan.

Shade helps workers cool off because it blocks their bodies from solar radiation. We emphasize the importance of shade in our Proyecto Sol trainings, which we deliver under our AFOP foldable shade canopy when the training takes place in the field. Whether it’s natural shade from trees or artificial shade created by an awning, growers should make a shaded area available to their workers during breaks. The state of California requires shaded rest areas for outdoor workers. While federal law doesn’t have specific shade requirements, the Occupational Safety and Health Act recognizes that all employers have a general duty to protect their workers from known hazards, such as heat stress. Dozens of AFOP’s Heat Stress trainers are going into the fields this week to train farmworkers in heat stress prevention during the AFOP Heat Stress Training Marathon. To keep track of how may farmworkers have been trained, check us out on Facebook and Twitter.

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