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For Farmworkers and Others Who Work Outdoors, Extreme Heat Hitting Nation Is a Matter Of Life and Death

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“The heat dome that blanketed the Pacific Northwest in 2021 is being repeated across the southern U.S. this year,” NPR reports. Phoenix has hit at least 110 degrees or more for ten days and counting. It’s not just the U.S., either. “For the third time this week, Earth sets an unofficial heat record,” the Associated Press reported.

Those at heightened risk during this extreme weather are outdoor workers, like construction workers and farmworkers. Lorena Abalos, a cherry and blueberry worker from Washington, said that she’s used to working under the sun. But due to the increasingly harsh weather, this essential work has become more difficult – and risky. Abalos told NPR about one day when she saw her colleague experience a medical emergency. 

“[A woman I worked with] told me her head hurt and I told her you have to step outside to get water and shade,” Abalos told the outlet. “But we didn’t even have shade. She began throwing up. We had to call an ambulance.”

Abalos said this weather has forced many farmworkers to begin their day as early as 3 a.m. in order to avoid the heat. This has meant that her 13-year-old son, Andy, has no longer been able to join her as he’d done in the past. While he’d previously worked in the fields to help the family financially (unlike other industries, young children can work at small farms or family farms, Human Rights Watch said), Abalos said it became too dangerous. 

“We would run into snakes, other animals and we pick blindly because they gave us a little lamp and we barely see our hands,” she told NPR.

Texas is seeing some of the most intense heat so far this summer. Of the heat forecasts in major cities, eight of the 10 hottest areas are in Texas. McKinney, Austin, and Fort Worth are forecast to be 114 degrees or above on Thursday, with triple-digit temperatures expected through next week. 

But despite this sweltering heat becoming our new reality, the conservative Texas legislature last month passed a law that was signed by Gov. Abbott that, when enacted in September, will nullify local ordinances establishing water breaks and other relief for outdoor workers. These are lifesaving local ordinances. Texas has been the deadliest state for outdoor workers. More than 50 people have died since 2010, a number that in reality is likely even higher due to under reporting. 

This grim number will inevitably grow once the “Death Star” bill – as it has been labeled – is enacted and local ordinances are overturned. Since the bill’s signing, at least three outdoor workers have died due to heat, Texas Observer said

One was a Houston-area construction worker who passed out while pouring cement. Forty-six year-old Felipe Pascual’s death “comes as federal authorities are investigating the death of a Dallas mailman who died after collapsing in the middle of his daily route amid 115 degree heat index values earlier in June,” Houston Chronicle reports.

Mily Trevino-Sauceda, Executive Director of womens’ farmworker group Alianza de Campesinas, told the Associated Press she still remembers when her mom, a potato and alfalfa harvester, fainted from the heat in front of her frightened children. Without proper water and shade breaks, workers can experience nausea, vomiting, or worse. “Farm workers are 35 times more likely to die of heat exposure than workers in other industries,” the AP said.

“Knowing all this still happens, it angers,” Trevino-Sauceda said in the report. “It angers because we know what it is to do this kind of work. And even though we want to be loyal to doing a good job, we don’t even think at the time that if we’re treated as human beings or not. We just want to survive it.”

While lawmakers have in the past introduced the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, which would require OSHA to implement a national heat stress standard, no such standard is currently in place at the federal level. In 2021, the Biden administration made a much-needed policy change and announced “a coordinated, interagency effort to respond to extreme heat” threatening workers and communities. In a statement, the administration noted “essential jobs with high exposure levels are disproportionately held by Black and Brown workers.” 

“But the rulemaking process is slow and two years later — as another heat dome causes deaths among farm workers and others — it is still not done,” NPR noted. Like previously noted, some states have acted on their own to enact their own heat standards.

“There are already three states that have some form of this standard,” Debbie Berkowitz, former chief of staff of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Obama administration, told The Counter in 2021. “It’s water, rest, shade, acclimatization. Those are the key ingredients.” But even when workers are encouraged to report safety violations, they may not out of fear. 

“This is a workforce, which is around 50% undocumented, overwhelmingly living right at the poverty line, so there’s an immense amount of economic desperation and an immense amount of fear of retaliation,” United Farm Workers’ Antonio DeLoera told KCRA. Bipartisan lawmakers in the U.S. House this month reintroduced legislation creating legal status for undocumented farmworkers already feeding America. Previous versions of the bill passed with bipartisan support in 2019 and 2021.