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More Heat Continues To Put Idaho Farmworkers At Risk Of Illness

Farmworkers stand around a food distribution hosted by a nonprofit.
Community Council of Idaho

Marielena Vega grew up helping her mom pick cherries and apples near Wilder. When she was old enough, she began working in the fields, too, and did that to make money in the summers through college.

She said when it came to high temperatures, she and her mother and sisters would get creative with ways to stay cool.

During breaks they’d rest in their car and put jackets on the windshield to block the sun.

“We had frozen bottles [of water] that we could easily put in one of our little backpacks or in a makeshift bottle carrier using a bandana, and hook it up to our belt loop,” she said.

It took preparation. If you forgot ice, you’d want to make sure you’d stop at the gas station on the way. People wore sunglasses, hats, bandanas and tried to hide their skin from the sun — similar precautions Vega said they took almost every day to avoid pesticide exposure. But those layers can also lead to overheating.

Temperatures in the Treasure Valley are set to top 100 degrees for at least the next week and that means farmworkers, working outside for most of the day, are at a heightened risk for heat exhaustion. The trend will likely continue with climate change, which will mean more extreme weather and hotter temperatures.

One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2008 found farmworkers died from heat-related illness at a rate 20 times other workers. The death of a farm laborer at an Oregon nursery last week is under investigation as heat-related.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t have a specific standard for working in the heat, but it requires employers to provide a place of employment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.”

Only three states — California, Washington and Minnesota — have specific heat-related regulations for workers.

Vega now works with the nonprofit Idaho Organization of Resources Councils. Without federal or state laws to protect workers from the heat, she said it’s often up to the employers to keep their employees safe and employers should better educate their workers on signs of heat exhaustion.

Farmworkers are incentivized to work as fast as possible to get the most out of their days, Vega said, and young people working in the fields like she did might think they’re invincible, when they’re at risk, too.

“They might have the sense of immortality, like, ‘I'm young, I can do it, it's hot, but you know, it’s not going to get to me,’” she said.

The Idaho Immigrant Resource Alliance is organizing a drive in the Treasure Valley to collect water, sunscreen, N95 masks and other resources for farmworkers.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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