From wildfire smoke to record-breaking heat and flash floods, the impacts of climate change are impossible to ignore. This summer, wildfires clouded skies in the Eastern U.S. with a haze of smoke and made it difficult to breathe. Intense heat in parts of the country led many people to stay indoors. Powerful floods destroyed homes, farms and infrastructure. And all of these extreme weather events harmed people’s health.

As climate change increasingly impacts the health and day-to-day lives of people in America, I want to focus on one of the groups particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of a changing climate: farmworkers, approximately 78% of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino. In recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month, I spoke with experts in the field to look at what more can be done to protect outdoor workers in the face a rapidly changing climate.

Why Farmworkers Are More at Risk

Farmworkers are on the frontlines of climate-related emergencies. As outdoor workers, they are often the first to experience the impacts of extreme weather conditions, including heat and wildfire smoke. Extreme heat is not just uncomfortable – it can also be deadly. Hot, humid conditions can strain the respiratory system, making it harder to breathe, especially for individuals at higher risk. Research has shown that agricultural workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat-related stress than workers in other industries. 

Extreme heat and drought also are fueling more intense wildfire seasons, and outdoor workers are increasingly having to deal with harmful exposures to wildfire smoke.

"Research has shown that agricultural workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat-related stress than workers in other industries."

Efraim Lopez, MPH, Clean Air Advocacy Manager at the American Lung Association and former farm worker, recalled, “I remember harvesting almonds early in the morning before the sun came up. In the headlights of the machines and tractors it seemed as if it were snowing, but we all knew it was the falling of ash from nearby wildfires. It was so close, in fact, that we could see the orange glow just over the hill of the neighboring orchard."

“Farmwork is one of the most dangerous forms of work,” said Michael Méndez, PhD, an assistant professor at University of California, Irvine School of Social Ecology. “With a warming and changing climate, harvest season is colliding more and more with wildfire season, and wildfire season is becoming almost year-round.” Dr. Méndez has worked closely with migrant and labor rights groups, and recently launched a research study in collaboration with the National Center for Atmospheric Research to explore the disparate impacts of extreme wildfire events on undocumented Latino and Indigenous migrants in California.

Wildfires release harmful pollutants into the air, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that can penetrate deep into the lungs. Exposure to wildfire smoke can exacerbate underlying respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Exposure to PM2.5 is linked to heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer, and even premature death.

“Wildfire smoke exposure has been tied to a range of adverse health outcomes including an increase in respiratory and cardiovascular emergency department visits. Fine particles can get into the lungs and blood stream, causing inflammation and breathing problems,” explained Joan Casey, PhD, an environmental epidemiologist and adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Outdoor workers may be at additional risk since they spend all their time outdoors and often engage in activities that increase their respiratory rate and therefore the amount of smoke particles that they breath in.”

However, farmworkers have limited access to resources to protect themselves from harmful smoke. A research study by the University of Washington found that 3 in 4 farmworkers reported exposure to an unhealthy amount of smoke but reported no changes made to their routine or activities. One hundred percent of the workers in the study reported that they had little to no information on how to protect themselves from smoke.

When outdoor air quality and heat conditions are so hazardous that public health authorities recommend people stay indoors, farmworkers are often unable to stay home from work. “There’s often pressure to work in these conditions for fear they won’t get jobs later on because they didn’t come when the employers requested them to, or they may face retaliation and be deported,” explained Dr. Méndez.

Many farmworkers report that they are unable to miss work because farmwork is their only source of income. They are often paid by piece-rate, meaning they are paid for the number of units harvested. “The faster you move, the more crops that you harvest, the more money you get,” added Dr. Méndez.  

Workers often have to make a difficult choice: protect their health or risk their income for the day, and potentially their livelihood. “No worker should have to choose between simply living or going to work to earn a living,” said Amy Liebman, Director of Environmental and Occupational Health for the Migrant Clinicians Network. 

Additional factors, including access to medical care, income and work authorization status, make farmworkers more vulnerable to climate-related disasters. According to the 2019-2020 National Agricultural Workers Survey, only 48% of farmworkers report having health insurance, and about half (56%) have work authorization in the United States. “Individuals that are undocumented are unlikely to assert their occupational and labor rights for fear of retaliation and worse, fear of deportation of themselves and their families,” said Dr. Méndez.

Some states, including California, Washington, and Oregon, have taken steps to protect outdoor workers, with rules requiring shade and water to protect workers from heat and respiratory measures to protect workers from hazardous air quality. But there is still a long way to go. There are currently no federal heat or wildfire smoke standards to protect outdoor workers.

In places where there are respiratory protections for workers, wearing a mask is often an impractical solution. “These respirator masks…we know that they’re difficult and can slow you down. There are situations where during wildfires farmworkers won’t use masks because it’s difficult to keep moving forward and there’s pressure to continue to work and pay the bills,” said Dr. Méndez. Less than half of the farmworkers in the University of Washington research study reported wearing a mask.

"There are currently no federal heat or wildfire smoke standards to protect outdoor workers."

Furthermore, emergency notification systems that can warn workers to evacuate the area sometimes do not reach farmworkers in rural or remote areas. Efraim Lopez explained the dangers of not only wildfire smoke to outdoor workers, but also proximity to the fires themselves, stemming from a lack of notification systems. “My coworkers and I didn’t have cellphone reception, long range radios or an evacuation plan. The only way anyone would know if we were in trouble, injured, or dead is if the load of almonds didn’t arrive at the end of the day,” he said. There is a need for more robust evacuation systems and language-appropriate outreach to ensure farmworkers can protect themselves in the event of an emergency.

What Can Be Done?

Everyone has the right to breathe healthy air. The farmworkers who help put food on our tables are no exception. In the short term, several key strategies can help protect farmworkers as climate change fuels wildfires and extreme heat:

  1. Emergency notification systems in place for outdoor workers.
  2. Public outreach and resources in multiple languages on how farmworkers can protect their health. 
  3. Expanded workplace protections to help safeguard outdoor workers from hazardous air quality and extreme heat.
  4. Improved air quality monitoring and surveillance near outdoor worksites.
  5. Additional research to evaluate the health impacts of climate change on outdoor workers. 

“America depends on our farm workers to put food on our table and keep the nation fed... the least we can do as consumers is provide protections for them as it also means food security for us,” added Efraim Lopez.

In the long term, stronger action to mitigate the effects of climate change can benefit farmworkers’ health and safety. “On a global level we know farmworkers will benefit from our broader approaches to slow climate change like lessening our use of fossil fuels,” said Liebman. “But in the meantime, they are disproportionately impacted, and we must acknowledge this as we respond to each climate event from flooding to hurricanes to wildfires to high heat days.”

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