They make a living outside in dangerous NC heat. “Your body can’t handle the work.”
About 150,000 farmworkers harvest North Carolina’s crops, tend to its fields and support the state’s largest industry.
This is an industry that comes with particular risks. Outdoor work is a leading cause of reported heat illness in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. A 2016 Wake Forest University study found that 36% of 101 farmworkers surveyed have suffered symptoms of heat illness while working outside, while 67% have worked in temperatures they called “extremely hot.”
“We always know that heat is a threat,” said Gayle Thomas, the medical director of DHHS’ farmworker health program.
These conditions are almost certain to get worse, a direct consequence of human-caused climate change leading to more hot days, more heat waves and warmer nights. By the middle of the century, it is likely that annual average temperatures will rise between 2 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the N.C. Climate Science Report released earlier this year.
Farmworker advocates point to heat standards, or rules requiring growers to give workers more breaks and provide water when temperatures are high, as one possible solution. California and Washington have passed such laws, but there are political hurdles in North Carolina.
One thing is certain: Workers in the fields are already noticing a different climate.
Michelle Tigchelaar was a researcher at the University of Washington in 2017 when a farmworker died picking blueberries in the coastal community of Bellingham.
“That really sparked my interest from an academic point of view — realizing people in my research community weren’t thinking at all about the people doing the work and focusing on the crops,”
Tigchelaar wanted to find out when working conditions grow unsafe for farmworkers and what steps they can take to make the summer months safer. Her research looked at workers’ pace, the kind of clothing they wear and how frequently they take breaks.
Under existing working conditions, farmworkers become susceptible to heat illness when the heat index averages 83.4 degrees Fahrenheit, Tigchelaar reported in a study published in August in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
That number was initially surprising, Tigchelaar said, because it is much lower than what either the National Weather Service or OSHA identify as a dangerous range.
If global warming is held to two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the number of unsafe working days will double. If the world warms four degrees Celsius, or 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, Tigchelaar projects that the number of unsafe working days will triple.
In South Carolina, 25 counties are projected to have more than 100 unsafe days under the two-degree scenario, led by Beaufort County with 118. Brunswick would be the only North Carolina county likely to reach that threshold, although other counties in the southeastern part of the state would be close.
The four degree Celsius scenario would see virtually every county in North and South Carolina hit 100 unsafe working days, with the exception of a dozen counties in the western North Carolina mountains.
The research found the dangerous heat index rose to 95.2 degrees Fahrenheit – giving them a greater margin of safety — if workers worked 54 minutes of every hour at a light pace wearing single-layer clothing and resting in air-conditioned spaces. Under a different scenario, where workers spent every half-hour working at a light pace wearing double-layer clothing and resting in shade, the heat stress threshold would creep upward to 97.3 degrees.
Without changes, Tigchelaar warned, farmworker productivity could decline as the temperatures rise.
“There will probably be a lag between that productivity and increases in temperature because people aren’t always in a position to prioritize their health in that regard,” she said, “but ultimately as people are struggling in the heat, that will impact people’s ability to do the work.”
North Carolina farmworker advocates, DHHS and the state Department of Labor each provide training around heat illness. Outreach workers conduct health assessments and educate farmworkers about the symptoms of heat illness, while the Department of Labor has created a PowerPoint presentation for employers.
But North Carolina does not have any explicit rules requiring farmers to take specific steps to protect their workers from high temperatures.
North Carolina farmworkers and advocates think a heat standard would help, though.
Thomas Arcury, who along with his wife, Sara Quandt, has studied heat illness among North Carolina’s farmworkers for more than two decades, minces no words.
“We need a heat standard,” Arcury, the director of Wake Forest University’s Center for Worker Health, said in an interview. “That would be a big help now, and that would be a big help later, as temperatures rise.”
To see how a heat standard would actually work, North Carolina could look to California.
Following a series of heat-related farmworker deaths in 2005, California regulators enacted emergency heat regulations. A year later, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s first heat standard went into effect.
The most recent version of the rule requires employers to: create and maintain a written plan for dealing with high temperatures; provide heat illness prevention training for employees and staff; encourage workers to drink at least 32 ounces of water each hour; and provide shade.
As part of the effort to provide shade, employers tow roofed-in trailers with benches built on top to the work sites. Others have shades built onto the sides of buses that extend out to protect against the sun.
There are additional rules that go into effect when the temperature reaches 95 degrees. At that point, employers must either observe employees for ill effects from heat or implement a buddy system. Furthermore, workers must be allowed to take a 10-minute break every two hours, with additional breaks every two hours after the traditional eight-hour workday.
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