Aug 15, 2023 - World

Grueling heat takes toll on outside workers' physical and mental health

A farmworker wears protective layers while gathering produce in the summer heat, before receiving heat awareness education outreach from the TODEC Legal Center, on August 2, 2023 near Hemet, California

A farmworker wears protective layers while gathering produce in the summer heat near Hemet, Calif., on Aug. 3. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Workers' advocates are urging local, state and federal governments to implement safety standards to protect the physical and mental well-being of Latinos who work under unrelenting heat conditions.

Driving the news: Farmworkers — the majority of whom in the U.S. are Latino — and others who work outside are especially vulnerable to the heat waves gripping parts of the country. Farmworkers in particular are more likely to die from heat stress than other outdoor workers, studies have found.

  • Since 2011, there have been 436 work-related deaths caused by environmental heat exposure, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last month, Efraín López García, who was 29 and picked fruit in Florida, died after what his family described as severe heat illness symptoms.

State of play: There are no federal rules that require employers to give outdoor workers breaks or time in the shade and to hydrate. Of the few states that offer protections for outdoor workers,  California, Oregon and Washington have the most, including required heat breaks.

  • Without protections, people doing outdoor work say they fear being penalized — and sometimes are — when they try to get water or take a short break in the shade.

Advocates say that protections should go beyond water and shade breaks.

  • "We need to draw the connection between not just heat and physical wellbeing, but other consequences … because if someone is working in sweltering weather and they are in need of water and need a break that has a toll on the psyche," says Monica Ramirez, founder and president of Justice for Migrant Women.
  • Ramirez's nonprofit ran a pilot mental health program for farmworkers in California and Florida over the last two years. Migrant workers received group therapy and regular check-ins about workplace stressors, including those posed by the environment
  • A survey of priorities gleaned from the sessions is set to be published in the coming months by the group, which hopes to scale up the program.
  • Ramirez says the farmworkers who benefited said the program was life-changing. That feedback has made it especially clear to Ramirez that the much-needed public policies for heat safety should have a mental health component.

The big picture: Extended sun and heat exposure is associated with memory issues, problems sleeping and increased suicidal behavior.

  • Hector Colon-Rivera, a psychiatrist, says symptoms flare up because the body tries to adapt to expend less energy — both physically and emotionally.
  • Colon-Rivera tells Noticias Telemundo those symptoms can be worse for people with preexisting conditions such as diabetes.
  • U.S. Hispanics over index for type 2 diabetes, largely due to factors like lower health care access and problems getting proper nutrition.

What to watch: The Biden administration last month issued the first Department of Labor Hazard Alert for heat, which says that "at a minimum" employers should provide cool water and rest areas.

  • The DOL's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has also been holding discussions with business owners and local governments to unveil federal regulations sometime in the near future.

Farmworkers are also fighting for protections at the local level.

  • In Florida's Miami-Dade county, a proposal dubbed the "Qué calor" ordinance would require 1o-minute water breaks every two hours and training for workers and supervisors about how to prevent heat exhaustion.
  • The proposed ordinance passed a first hearing, but still must go through a second vote before being adopted.
  • "We don't want any more deaths while we work: We want workplace protections with water, shade and rest," Sandra Ascencio, a farmworker for 18 years who's suffered heat stroke, said late last month during a public hearing.

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