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On Earth Day 2024, A Reminder that Extreme Heat Poses a Deadly Risk to Essential Farmworkers, Construction Workers, and Outdoor Laborers

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While the U.S. has made some advancements in addressing climate change, including lowering greenhouse gas emissions, this upcoming Earth Day is an important reminder that our communities haven’t been immune from the devastating consequences of this global crisis. 

“A historic heatwave in the Pacific Northwest resulted in dangerous temperatures, which was made 150 times more likely because of climate change,” Diana Martinez Quintana and Dan Mathis wrote in 2022. “It killed nearly 200 people in Oregon and Washington. July of this year was also the third hottest July in 128 years in the United States.” The world would experience the hottest year on record just a year after the report’s publication.

While the extreme heat hitting portions of the U.S. affects all communities, those at heightened risk during this extreme weather include construction workers, farmworkers, and others who labor outdoors. For these workers – millions of whom are immigrants – extreme heat is a matter of life or death

On New Year’s Day 2023, Florida farmworker Rafael Barajas died on his first day of work at a bell pepper farm. “Struggling to keep pace with more experienced farmworkers, he complained of fatigue and leg pain as the area’s heat index neared 90 degrees,” the Department of Labor (DOL) said. Efraín López García, another farmworker in Florida, died while harvesting tropical fruit on July 6, the hottest day on record in at least four decades. “Is that what we deserve? No. We’re human beings,” said Alejandro Pérez, a member of Florida-based WeCount. “We deserve a dignified life and a decent job.” That same month, the temperature was already in the 90s when Dario Mendoza, a dad of two, collapsed and later died while working at an Arizona farm. “Through July 22, Yuma had experienced a stretch of 11 days in a row with temperatures at or above 110 degrees,” the Arizona Republic reported.

“On average, 43 farmworkers die from heat-related illnesses every year, according to studies,” Reckon reported. “They are 20 times more likely to die from heat than civilian employees.” 

Elliot Brown, a UPS worker in Fort Worth, complained about not feeling well and asked if he could go home during one hot morning in July 2017. “The answer was no,” USA Today reported. “They were short-handed, his supervisor said. Shortly after 6 a.m., Brown was found unconscious in the back of a UPS truck. He later died at a hospital.” His mother, Laura, said trying to cope with his senseless death has been “a nightmare. When I wake up in the morning, I keep thinking it was all a dream. It’s been very hard.”

We know that heat standards ensuring outdoor workers get water, shade, rest breaks, and relevant training recommended by experts and advocates can save lives. In its investigation of Baraja’s tragic death, the DOL determined the farmworker’s death was entirely preventable and that the contractor who hired him had failed to follow best practices.

“The first day of 2023 was this young worker’s last because his employer failed to take simple steps to protect him from heat exposure, a known and dangerous hazard,” OSHA official Condell Eastmond said in June 2023. “Had Rafael Barajas made sure workers were given time to get used to working in high temperatures and provided them with water, shade and rest the worker might not have lost his life.”

Despite legislative efforts by members of Congress, there is no federal heat standard in place. While the Biden administration announced “a coordinated, interagency effort to respond to extreme heat” threatening workers and communities, the rule-making process can be slow. Some states have acted on their own to enact lifesaving heat standards. “California, Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington state have established workplace heat safety standards, and California is considering an expansion to cover indoor workers as well,” Bloomberg Law reported this month. “Maryland’s labor department also is working to finalize a heat safety rule that would be the first of its kind on the East Coast.”

But in horrifically cruel measures attacking the workers who keep industries in their states running, Florida and Texas have passed into law draconian bills prohibiting local entities from passing lifesaving laws protecting laborers who work outdoors from exposure to heat. “Texas is the state where the most workers die from high temperatures,” The Texas Tribune reported last year. One of these workers was Elliot Brown. 

Florida passed its law this past month despite the deaths of Rafael Barajas and Efraín López García last year. Lucia Lopez, a farmworker who harvests tomatoes near Tampa, said “she’s sad that Florida won’t have local protections in place for workers like her,” NPR reported. “There are days that feel more harmful than others,” Lopez said. “Like, some days, you can get a headache, and you can feel dehydrated.”

Across the globe, millions of people have been “forced to move due to the impact of climate change,” Diana Martinez Quintana, an immigration and climate justice advocate, wrote in 2022. With global temperatures continuing to rise, experts with the World Bank estimated that by 2050, as many as 216 million people could be displaced within their own countries due to the impacts of climate change. Many will also be displaced totally out of their countries due to climate change and related environmental crises. We have seen this in recent migration from Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador to the United States. FWD.us noted that droughts were a “pivotal factor” in driving many Central American individuals and families to the U.S. in 2018 and 2019. 

Back in Florida, NPR’s Jessica Meszaros said that business interests and wealthy individuals have vocally opposed heat protections, “saying they would cripple the agriculture and construction industries.” But you know what would really devastate these industries and local communities? If these workers and human beings deserving of respect and dignity were no longer alive to harvest the food we eat or build the homes that shelter us.