Extreme Heat Is Becoming More Dangerous for Farmworkers
In the fertile plains of Washington state’s Yakima Valley, maximum summer temperatures typically approach 90 Fahrenheit, meaning sweaty, potentially dangerous work for the people who harvest the region’s bounty: 77 percent of US-grown hops, a huge portion of our apples, and plenty of pears and cherries as well. But for the past two years, fierce heat waves have descended, making an uncomfortable job even more punishing. Starting on July 16, Yakima experienced eight straight days of triple-digit temperatures, peaking at a demonic 108 F, reached both on July 28 and July 29.
Under emergency rules for outside labor adopted during a record-smashing summer 2021 heat wave and reinstated this year, when the temperature hits 89 F, Washington employers have to provide workers with a paid 10-minute break, in full shade with the opportunity to sit, every two hours; and enough “suitably cool water to allow workers to drink at least one quart each per hour.” These measures have helped keep workers safe, but they aren’t quite enough, says Yakima-based Adriana Cruz, an organizer at the Fair Work Center, a Washington group that defends workers in low-wage sectors like agriculture and food service.
When I caught up with her in late July, she had just met with several apple pickers. To avoid extreme heat and interruptions from required breaks, the workers told her, farm managers have pushed harvest shifts into the early hours, starting around 4:30 am and ending in the late morning, when the temperature approaches the 89 F threshold. Even so, things can get perilously hot. One reason is that the Washington rules don’t account for humidity, which typically isn’t a concern in semi-arid Yakima. “But because of the heat, growers need to be watering orchids pretty frequently,” says Cruz. Irrigated ground in 80-plus weather can create pockets of humidity that make people working outside feel much hotter.
One apple orchard picker told Cruz that her crew stopped working at noon last week, with the temperature over 90 and irrigation-related humidity building. “She told me it was a horrible feeling, because she was nauseous, dizzy, and having trouble breathing,” Cruz says. On top of the sweltering weather, pickers have to climb a ladder to reach the apples, and “even the actual ladder gets really hot, and it’s really hard to touch it without burning yourself in these temperatures.”
Yakima’s harvesters have it better than their outdoor-toiling peers in most of the United States. As the climate warms, the frequency of US heat waves has nearly tripled since the 1960s, and they’ve also gotten more severe and longer-lasting. People who make their living outdoors have paid a severe price. Back in 2008, the US Centers for Disease Control calculated that crop workers die from heat stress at 20 times the rate of nonfarm employees. A 2021 analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by National Public Radio and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that heat-related fatalities among US workers have doubled since the early 1990s.
via Wired https://www.wired.com
August 6, 2022 at 05:06AM