Exceeding Expectations and Saving Lives

As we come into the homestretch of the Heat Stress Prevention Training Marathon, we applaud those who participated and cheer them to the finish line. We won’t know the final results until Monday morning, as we have some folks on “California” time working through Friday evening to wrap up their race.  But as of today, we have a total count of 1,630 farmworkers and their employers trained on how to recognize and prevent heat-related illness or even death. It’s been an exciting event—our trainers were vying with each other for the highest number of farmworkers trained, giving us daily (some hourly) updates and relating stories from the fields.  By early Thursday, these champions of farmworker health had exceeded our goal of reaching 800 workers.  They were out there with farmworkers before dawn, working until late at night, driving all day,  and training at labor camps and farmworker housing. Some trainings were small, with just two or three farmworkers at a time, and sometimes they were larger with groups consisting of 15 or more farmworkers and their employers.

We also applaud the many growers and employers who participated in this project.  Without their cooperation and understanding that extreme heat is a dangerous aspect of their operation, success would not have been possible.  It is our sincere hope that the participating employers will recognize that training alone will not be enough to prevent a heat-related disaster. Water. Rest. Shade.  It’s a simple enough slogan to repeat, but often difficult to practice.  Often times, if the employer does provide water (they should, but we know anecdotally that some do not), it is usually in coolers at the end the row, far away from where the farmworkers are picking fruits and vegetables.  The nature of harvesting most crops requires speed, making it a challenge to lug a gallon of water down the row with you.  Shade is non-existent in most industrial-scale farms, where the workers are surrounded by thousands of acres of vegetables or fruits.  The only refuge from the sun in these cases may be the shadow of the bus that brings them to work.  Workers themselves, are reluctant to take a break, even if they are feeling sick from heat. Most farmworkers are paid by a piece-rate pay structure, which discourages them from taking care of themselves, because every bucket, every sack, and every basket counts.

Workers and employers share in protecting against an illness that can quickly escalate into fatality.  Workers must be conscious of drinking water frequently (eight ounces every 15 minutes is recommended while working in extreme heat) and they must recognize when they are becoming dehydrated and seek shade to rest.  They must also take special care if they are pregnant or have a chronic health problem that makes them more vulnerable to heat.

The employer’s role is to go beyond simply training workers.  We have heard from some employers that after learning about heat stress, they have changed their policies about drinking water distribution—making more coolers available in more easily accessible areas.  Other employers have reported allowing more frequent breaks during the temperature spikes that occur later in the day.  Some employers have adjusted the work schedule during heat waves, having workers start earlier and ending before the peak heat hours. Another employer reported that he will have his workers perform their tasks in pairs, so they can look out for each other’s reaction to heat.  One particular employer in Puerto Rico has gone so far as to consider planting shade trees in an area near the field to provide workers with shade.

Feedback from farmworkers and employers from our trainings is crucial. It is a testament to the effort our trainers put into their work.  Heat stress illness is among the most preventable workplace injuries, but it requires adequate understanding of the illness and willingness to take the recommended steps.  Our trainers have spread the message to over a thousand farmworkers and their employers in one week’s time.  We find that a remarkable feat. While we may never know how many illnesses or deaths were prevented, we know that 1,630 now have the information they need to protect their health. Congratulations and job very well done, trainers!  We are proud of all of you!

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