On July 4, 2023, the world experienced the hottest temperature on record: 17.18 Celsius (62.92 Fahrenheit) degrees (Paddison, 2023). Heat waves have been felt across the Earth in places like India, China, and the Americas in the last few weeks. The United States also hit new highs: Phoenix experienced a temperature of 114 Fahrenheit on July 12, while Fort Lauderdale, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Miami, San Antonio, McAllen, and New Orleans broke records with temperatures close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or above (Bushard, 2023). Moreover, on July 16 most areas in the South were facing an abnormal (and potentially dangerous) heat wave (Figure 1), which was predicted to extend at least for the entire week (Figure 2). The excessively high temperatures and low air quality could have been exacerbated by the smoke from wildfires in Canada. However, phenomena like “El Niño” and “La Niña” (associated with climate change), are expected to increase in frequency and severity regardless.
Agriculture, construction, landscaping, and oil and gas extraction are some of the sectors in which workers are most at risk of being impacted by rising temperatures. Farmworkers are one of the most vulnerable populations to be affected by extreme weather episodes, as they perform physically demanding tasks in environments that can be humid, polluted (by smoke from fires or pesticides), and heat stress. Given the nature of their job, agricultural workers are generally exposed to the elements and need to be outdoors a significant amount of time. The harvesting seasons of some labor-intensive crops grown in Southern states and other parts of the country peak around the summer, limiting the ability to re-schedule activities throughout the year as can be done in other industries. Excessive and constant exposure to elevated temperatures can lead to heart disease, heart stroke, faintness, sunburn, dizziness, dehydration, chronic kidney illnesses, and death (Farmworker Justice, 2022).
There are several measures that can be taken to protect farmworkers during heat waves and prevent negative impacts on their health:
- Access to clean water: workers should be able to drink clean and sufficient water whenever they need to. Ideally, water should be cold, provided free of charge, and be offered near the employees’ workplace. Frequent water drinking should be encouraged.
- Access to shades: workers should be offered the opportunity to access shaded areas during their free and recovery times. Whenever possible, employers should use tractors or other tools to transport and keep shade-providing structures around harvesting areas. Fans and other cooling devices should also be offered to workers in their housing arrangements.
- Introduction of “alternative” shifts: the hottest hours during the day should be avoided for outdoor activity. If portable lights are an option, shifts could be moved to the evening or early morning to avoid exposure to sunlight.
- Increasing the frequency and number of resting periods: to allow workers to recover and hydrate. Special considerations should be given to older workers.
- Implementation of peer-involving strategies: incentivizing workers to constantly look, together with their supervisors, for indications that their co-workers could be suffering from heat stress.
- Training: workers on how to detect heat-related stress symptoms, what to do if they experience any, where to access water and shades, and how to adapt their clothing depending on the temperature.
- Information: about weather forecasts and other recommendations by public officials should be monitored. Generally, Extension personnel at universities, state and local health departments, and non-profit groups can provide additional resources related to protecting workers during heat waves (both in English and Spanish).
Heat waves are likely to happen more often as the planet experiences the consequences of climate change. Naturally, agriculture is going to be one of the most negatively impacted sectors. Some labor-intensive crops have very small windows of harvesting times. In addition, farmworkers generally get paid by the hour or piece and if crops are lost to heat or not harvested, their incomes can be substantially reduced, making them reluctant to protect themselves. For these reasons, it is important to take precautionary measures to take care of workers’ health, as agricultural production processes will need to continue and adapt to new weather conditions. Measures taken by employers and employees should be complemented by governmental actions tackling climate change.
Figure 1. Extreme Heat Distribution in the United States: July 16, 2023
Ahmed, N., and Muyskens, J. (2023). 70 million people in the U.S. may be exposed to dangerous heat today. The Washington Post, July 17, 2023, online version.
Bushhard, B. (2023). Record-breaking high temperatures: Here’s where the U.S. has hit new highs for 2023, including Miami, Phoenix and Austin. Forbes, July 11, 2023, online version.
Farmworker Justice. (2022). Farmworkers and the climate crisis. Environmental Justice Symposium Report.
Paddison, L. (2023). The planet saw its hottest day on record this week. It’s a record that will be broken again and again. CNN, July 6, 2023, online version.