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Communities | Environment

How Farmworkers Experience A Warming Climate

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HOOD RIVER, Ore. — For 20 years, Victor Gonzales has traveled the West picking crops. In the Northwest that means pears, cherries and apples. Right now, he’s working at a Hood River pear orchard. In the summer, temperatures here can reach 100 degrees. Gonzalez remembers one day when he’d been working really hard, sweating more than normal. Gonzales felt like he was going to pass out. He was shaky and very sleepy, he says through a translator. Instead of sleeping, he went to the farmworker housing unit and drank a lot of water and rested until he recovered.

Gonzales says a friend of his once went to the hospital after the heat in the fields left him weak and vomiting.

Harder Work In A Hotter Climate

Farm labor has always been strenuous. Dealing with the heat has always been a part of the job.

nasa map

But researchers say climate change is causing more outdoor workers to get sick more often.

Oregon State University’s Jeffery Bethel has been studying the connection between warming temperatures and farmworker health.

Bethel says climate models show average summer temperatures in the Northwest are increasing. By mid-century, they could be as much as 9 degrees higher than they are today.

“And not only that, the number of heat extreme events will also increase. It’s likely that these outdoor workers will experience a greater number of heat-related illnesses,” Bethel says.

A farmworker collects apples.
(Credit: Flickr/PNASH)

Migrant farmworkers are especially vulnerable to ill effects from higher temperatures. Their access to health care is more limited than it is for other workers. And sometimes their housing doesn’t provide much refuge from the heat.

On one farm in The Dalles, Ore., migrant worker advocates say even on the hottest nights, workers sleep outside. That’s because it’s even warmer in their oven-like rooms.

After several highly publicized, highly preventable worker deaths about a decade ago, Washington and California passed laws that regulate outdoor workers’ heat exposure. They’re the only two states in the country with laws that specifically protect outdoor workers from heat exposure.


Learning The Health Risks

Raymundo Rivas walks through a hops field in central Washington’s Yakima Valley. As a teenager Rivas helped harvest the crop that gives beer its tangy bite. Nearby, a conveyor belt takes the fresh flowers to be dried.

It’s been 20 years since Rivas harvested hops, cherries, and cucumbers in central Washington’s Yakima Valley. He said back then, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on worker protection.

“Conditions before: not as much shade provided out there. It was just whatever was out there and was available, they’d use it,” Rivas said.

Now, working for the state’s Department of Labor and Industries, Rivas helps educate workers and employers about the rules that are designed to keep outdoor workers cool and healthy.

A Department of Labor handout advising workers on
how to stay cool.

Laws in Washington now require workers and employers receive heat training. Drinkable water must be available and a plan must be in place in case anyone gets sick. That’s especially important as temperatures continue to rise.

“This summer, we’ve had some record temperatures, days of over 100 degrees,” Rivas says. “You’ve got a lot of crops out here that, once they’re irrigated, the humidity inside there is just tremendous. And then the workload that some of these folks have, puts a strain on their bodies.”

Staying Healthy

At the Yakima Valley Farmworkers Clinic, about 20 people sit in the waiting room. Some line up to fill prescriptions. Children play at the back of the room while their parents wait for their names to be called.

Dr. Alberto Jacir has been a family physician here for three years. He says farmworkers actually stop showing up for medical appointments during summer harvest. That’s because they can’t afford to take days off.

“My patient population, they have to make a living. This is their bread and butter, working in these critical harvest months,” Jacir says. “I’m not a person to say, don’t go to work. We just talk about dehydration. What is dehydration? Signs and symptoms of dehydration.”

heat index chart
This heat index chart shows when temperatures
become dangerous for outdoor workers.

Jacir says as days get hotter, farmworker conditions need to get better.

“It’s something that I do believe needs to be not overlooked. They’re important drivers of the economy. They are very hard workers, and they should have the best conditions for such hard manual labor,” Jacir says.

Better Conditions

Migrant farmworker Victor Gonzales says conditions have gotten better over the past 20 years: Growers now provide water; bathrooms are cleaner.

Farmer Alan Schreiber says that’s always been the case at his asparagus farm in Central Washington. He says farmworkers have access to water, ice, and shade. And they’re allowed to take regular breaks.

Schreiber says farmers won’t get their crops picked if they don’t look out for the well-being of their workers.

“This is the cold, hard reality. We’re short on labor. We do not have enough workers. Anyone who does not treat their workers with respect and treat them well enough and pay them well enough, those workers will get up and move,” Schreiber says.

Working In A Warming Climate

Back in Hood River, Gonzales looks out at the pear orchard where he picks fruit every day. He says he’s sat in on many training classes in Washington and California. He’s watched videos on how to keep cool and what to do if anyone gets sick.

“We know we have to drink water, and sometimes we have to take off our shoes and take a break for five minutes, 10 minutes,” Gonzalez says through a translator.

Those breaks will be even more critical for future generations of outdoor workers. Consider this:

Right now, eastern Washington doesn’t typically see more than two stretches with temperatures above 100.

But by 2085, those triple-digit heat waves could hit the area six times each summer.

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There’s more to come in our series, “Symptoms Of Climate Change:”

  • Monday: A uptick in temperature can make our waters hospitable to life forms, including toxic algae, that aren’t so hospitable to human health.

  • Tuesday: Cities will feel the heat as climate change drives summer temperatures up. It’s a phenomenon called the heat island effect.

  • Wednesday: Scientists say hotter temperatures will bring about more fire seasons that are longer, drier, and likelier to fill the air with smoke that can make breathing more difficult.