Protecting farmworkers from the health effects of extreme heat and the risk of COVID-19 are formidable health and safety challenges, according to presenters at the APHA Annual Meeting session, “Changing Seasons: Agricultural Worker Health & Safety and the Future Impacts of Extreme Heat.”

farmworkers in fieldFarmworkers in the U.S. face long hours of hard labor, often under a burning sun. Many are often undocumented immigrants from Latin America with little recourse to change workplace conditions rife with health dangers. 

And adults are not the only farm laborers in danger. Children as young as 10 often spend all day working in crop fields, according to presenter Joanne Sandberg, an associate professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine. 

In California, which has about 700,000 farmworkers, the Worker Occupational Safety and Health Training and Education Program, or WOSHTEP, offers guidelines on worker safety for farm laborers to help reduce job-related injuries and illnesses.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings the new challenge of encouraging compliance with infection control practices as well. According to the latest data from the Food & Environment Reporting Network, which has been tracking COVID-19 in the food system, 262 farms and production facilities have had confirmed COVID-19 cases, more than 10,700 farmworkers have tested positive and 39 have died.   

Heather Riden, a program director at the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of California-Davis, highlighted WOSHTEP’s efforts to increase compliance with physical distancing, mask-wearing and other best practices. Among the problems is that COVD-19 training is not mandated by the state and employers don’t want to cooperate because they’re concerned health officials will find a noncompliance issue, she said.

An area of particular success has been WOSHTEP’s videos covering COVID-19 mitigation practices, Riden reported. The videos are fun and engaging and can be watched on demand by farmworkers and employers.

Besides COVID-19, farmworkers in sun-drenched California, Arizona, Florida and Texas face a high risk for heat-related health issues, such as heat stroke, kidney disease and heart problems. Extreme heat days are only expected to increase in each of those states.

Major swaths of southern California, western Arizona, southern Texas and southwest Florida can expect 100 to 150 extreme heat days each year by 2050, according to data presented by Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Dahl talked about two mitigation strategies: better enforcement of worker-safety policies that protect workers from extreme heat, and the ongoing commitment to lower fossil fuel emissions to reduce global warming.

But advancing both is a steep climb, Dahl admits, noting that the Trump administration has rolled back numerous environmental regulations designed to protect outdoor workers, and among states, only California, Washington and Minnesota enforce heat protection standards.

Photo by Beto, courtesy iStockphoto