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Study: ‘Systemic’ changes could better protect farmworkers as climate change pushes temperatures higher

Farmworkers look through donated clothing and other items at a farm near Bruneau, Idaho.
Murphy Woodhouse
Boise State Public Radio
Farmworkers look through donated clothing and other items at a farm near Bruneau, Idaho.

Farmworkers are among those most impacted by rising temperatures and other effects of climate change. New research explores the risks they face and policy changes that could make them safer.

Farmworkers put in long hours in open fields during the hottest times of the year, and also when wildfires spread smoke across the region. In Idaho, more than a dozen of these workers told researchers what they do to try and protect themselves, and the ways that those measures often aren’t enough.

“The only thing that you can do is have more water breaks but not everyone gives you more water breaks,” one unnamed worker told researchers.

“It's so hard to breathe,” another quote reads. “When you get home, not only are you achy from your joints from doing this position all day, carrying stuff on you or bending down, you have all this pressure in your lungs from having to breathe really bad air and just overworking yourself.”

“Findings from this work underscore the importance of shifting the burden of climate resiliency from individuals to systemic workplace, residential, and community interventions to protect and improve the health and wellbeing of this essential population,” the paper reads.

Lead author Carly Hyland, an assistant environmental health sciences professor at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said that the precarious conditions of farmworkers’ lives - like lack of safe housing - only exacerbate the impacts of the risks they face at work.

“We hear a lot of times that farmworkers don't have access to air conditioning, lack of access to safe food, and really notably, lack of access to health services,” she said. “As well as widespread discrimination and racism and fear of things like deportation or interactions with police.”

She said only a handful of states – including Colorado, California, Washington and Oregon – have heat regulations to protect farmworkers, and that even those can prove insufficient.

She advocated for more and longer cooling breaks, as well as hazard pay for smoky or high-heat days, or even disaster pay when workers would be paid when it’s too dangerous to work.

“Heat stress is entirely preventable,” Hyland said. “And we really have the tools to prevent it.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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