It’s High Time to Protect Farmworkers From Heat-Related Illness and Death

Roxana Chicas, PhD, RN
Roxana Chicas, PhD, RN
7 Min Read

Chicas is an assistant professor of nursing.

In November, the Senate admitted defeat in the effort to pass a new version of the Farm Bill, and instead passed a stopgap funding measure to maintain the status quo — until they try again later in 2024 or in 2025. The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that extends beyond farm programs and has far-reaching implications across society, including our food assistance programs. It is typically reauthorized every 5 years.

The recent failure to pass a new version of the bill is a missed opportunity to take action on climate change and safeguard the health of farmworkers and food systems that are particularly vulnerable to our warming planet.

Delaying action is about a lot more than politics; there is a human toll.

Growing up, I was one of the few people in my family who spoke English. I immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador when I was 4 and quickly became an interpreter for my family, friends, and neighbors. I knew many people who worked outdoors and when they had work-related injuries, they needed help navigating the healthcare system. Some didn’t have insurance and others had employers who discouraged them from seeking care. All of this was complicated by the fact that although they were “essential” workers, many lacked basic labor protections.

My early experiences connecting people with healthcare led me to enroll in a community college and eventually, Emory University, to become a nurse and get my PhD. It was at Emory, as a doctoral student and now as an assistant professor of nursing, that I started caring for and working with farmworker communities, who are bearing the brunt of life-threatening heat.

While many go to grocery stores and see pretty displays of neatly piled fruits and vegetables, I see the workers who made this possible and who are trying to support their families. Farmworkers work long hours for low wages in an industry that often does not protect them from extreme heat, despite the fact that they are feeding the country. Despite the difficult environment they face at work, farmworkers are often careful not to rock the boat by advocating for themselves.

The reality, however, is that the boat needs rocking and changes are needed to address dehumanizing hot labor conditions. Farmworkers are at the forefront of several of our most pressing challenges, including climate change. Farmworkers are the group at highest risk of heat-related deaths — they are 35 times more likely to die than people doing any other job.

If anyone doubts the urgent need for protections, they can shadow me for a day. I currently work alongside the Farmworker Association of Florida, studying the impact of heat exposure on the health of farmworkers. Each day before work, workers provide blood and urine samples and put on discrete monitoring equipment to track their temperature and vitals throughout their workday. At the end of the workday, they return and provide blood and urine samples so we can understand the threats they face in real time.

Many of these workers are paid by the amount they harvest. Employers claim that this “piece rate work” is empowering because they can set their hours or take breaks when they want, but the reality is that they’re paid so little that their only option is to work harder and longer despite the frequently high ambient temperature. I see red faces and can literally feel the heat coming off our study participants when they come in for follow-up testing after work — even long after they leave the fields.

The Farm Bill must be updated to ensure that historic inequities are addressed and to guarantee the protection of farmworkers.

As we see more regular record-shattering heat, threats to their health only grow. But elected officials and policymakers can change that by instituting more worker protections — like protected breaks in the shade, access to cool water, and personal protective equipment — and taking steps to address climate change in the long run.

The Farm Bill has shaped our agricultural sector for years. It is far-reaching and determines what the government incentivizes, subsidizes, and chooses to invest in. When they turn again to reauthorize the bill, policymakers must prioritize climate change in their decisions, whether that means supporting programs to conserve land that can capture and store greenhouse gases, or incentivizing farmers to try new, climate-friendly practices that were started in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Most people in the U.S. now believe global warming is happening. Climate change has serious health implications, and it’s just a matter of making action a priority.

When I look at the farmworkers, I’m constantly reminded that I was drawn to this work because my mom very easily could have been a farmworker instead of a domestic worker. At its core, my work now isn’t that different from when I was a translator for my community as a child. I’m continuing to raise the voices of those who work in the fields, and for all of us who feel the burden of a changing climate.

Roxana Chicas, PhD, RN, is an assistant professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University in Atlanta.

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