Essential, but Treated as Expendable

Farmworkers are vital to climate justice.

By Lin Nelson | March/April 2023

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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As the world heats up—as floods, fires, smoke, and air pollution edge in on our health—there are some who carry the burden more than others. Many who work outdoors are paying the price—wildfire fighters, urban firefighters, construction workers, utility workers, timber workers, forest harvesters, transport workers, truck drivers, postal carriers, landscapers, road crews, and laborers of all kinds who spend the better part of their workday looking for shade or shelter from the storm. And many workers who are indoors in heated-up worksites—from smelters to restaurants—have to bear the mix of exposures both indoors and out. Prominent on the high-risk list are agricultural workers, those who work in fields and sheds, taking on some of the most relentless and volatile working conditions so that the rest of us can eat.

“Agricultural Exceptionalism” and the Movement to Reject It

Agriculture—as we have benefitted and been damaged by it—has a tortured history in the United States. It is built on slavery, indentured servitude, debt peonage, unequal access to land, imported and abused labor, children in the fields, pesticides, herbicides, and tainted fertilizers; constraints, if not punishments, for efforts to organize unions, and retaliation for speaking out; and now climate change. Internationally, agriculture risk is being reshaped and embedded by climatic exposures—from child farmworkers facing elevated heat and smoke exposure to the escalating rate of kidney disease among those who work in the fields of Central America. Here in the United States, we have little to show in the way of protections, since farm work has persistently been second tier in the safety-and-health system.

Farmworkers live and work in the terrain where many injustices converge. Agriculture has long been secondary to our already meager efforts to shape justice in the workplace as a whole. That U.S. agriculture is so dependent on and exploitative of immigrant workers deepens the risk to life and limb. Immigrant workers, especially those who are undocumented, are subject to some of the most at-risk jobs, with only a thin veneer of protections at best. Although many immigrant families have lived in well-established farm communities for generations, they continue to be subject to xenophobia and have limited access to adequate housing, education, and voting rights. There are the persistent risks to musculoskeletal health, as evidenced especially in medical anthropologist Seth Holmes’ doctor-in-the-fields examination of the daily physical risks of agricultural work. There are also poorly monitored exposures to pesticides and herbicides, not to mention the recent endurance test posed by Covid-19, especially for those seasonal workers living in densely packed dormitories.

Voices of the Movement

Groups from across the West—from primary care providers to social justice advocates—have been involved in promoting the value of a regionally connected strategy to protect farmworkers’ rights as essential workers in this challenging time. Here are some of those vital voices:

“Farmworker advocates have every reason to be furious and frustrated that the economic, social, and health conditions of the agriculture worker community has improved so little over the decades. Their voices have been overpowered and hushed with the seasonal cycles that result in the ebbing and receding of the public visibility of their struggles. Among those who never recede are the promotores de salud...the community health workers. They elevate the need for access, expect community needs to be responded to in more sustainable ways, and assure that respect and cultural lens inhabits all organizational strategies.”
—Kathy Baros-Friedt, community social justice advocate, member of the Strengthening Sanctuary Alliance, and prior Director of the Washington State Human Rights Commission

“Washington state’s emergency rules must be seen as a first step. The state did make some attempts to align rules with our West Coast neighbors, importantly at the insistence of community-based organizations and farmworker advocates. The alignment of heat and wildfire smoke rules is to prevent workers from dying, plain and simple. Our dream is that the Western State Pact for Heat and Wildfire smoke would be the catalyst for the rest of the country. What we hear from workers is in spite of the new rules it is business as usual.”
—Mary Jo Ybarra-Vega MS, LHMC, Outreach Health Coordinator, Quincy Community Health Center, Quincy, Wash.

“PCUN is pleased to see Oregon OSHA adopt one of the strongest heat standards in the country. However, there are still workers who lack access to shade or feel pressured to work through their breaks in order to earn more income. We must continue working to improve the enforcement of these new protective rules. Unfortunately, some farmworkers have even worked fewer hours this harvest season because of the extreme heat, resulting in lower wages and added stress to pay for expenses. The climate crisis continues to negatively impact our communities and we must work to adapt to our new realities.”
—Ira Cuello Martinez, Policy Advocacy Director, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Woodburn, Ore.

“IORC, along with the Idaho Immigrant Resource Alliance (IIRA), is providing heat and smoke supplies such as water, Gatorade, hats, and bandanas to farmworkers. With Idaho’s temperatures reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for almost two straight weeks this past summer, we know this will be the norm. With the lack of permanent rules and regulations, farmworkers will suffer heat-related illnesses and lack of protections as well as not having supplies that protect them. We have a Farmworker Justice Campaign to organize around heat, smoke, and pesticide use—to find a solution to support farmworkers in this time of drastic climate change.”
—Irene Ruiz, Bilingual Chapter Organizer, Idaho Organization of Resource Councils (IORC), Boise, Idaho (a region not formally part of the Western Pact, but with interested supporters)

The climate crisis—our ever-changing “new normal”—means that the basic threats to workers’ health are rising each day. When outdoor workers are exposed to 90-degrees Fahrenheit or above—the Heat Index trigger—they face several hazards: heat cramps due to the loss of large amounts of salt and water; heat exhaustion, which appears as dizziness, a weakened pulse, or nausea; and heat stroke, where the body’s core temperature elevates enough to damage the brain, heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Heat-related deaths can occur quickly or a few days after prolonged exposure. All of this can happen before the identified 90-degree trigger—depending on a person’s vulnerability or pre-existing conditions and on the pace and demands of the work. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated in 2008 that farmworkers are 20 times more likely than other workers to die from illnesses related to heat stress; other experts suggest this disproportionate risk is much higher. Some health analysts find the Heat Index to be insufficient, not effectively factoring in humidity, lack of shade, and the intensity of protracted heat waves.

And then there is this: in the U.S. health and safety system, we do not have a federal rule focused on protecting workers from heat (also known as a national or federal standard). Research scientists and health care providers consider heat, especially when augmented by smoke, to be one of the basic, most understood hazards to health. But we have been tepid, to say the least, in developing effective policy. There are guidelines, and many staff at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are dedicated to doing what they can to inform the public about the hazards of heat and smoke and to work with health care researchers, clinicians, and labor health advocates to move in the right direction. OSHA has struggled in its half-century of existence to make up for lost time and to catch up with the wide array of hazards that workers face—from accidents to chemical exposures. Concerns about heat are not new, but they are now obviously of urgent importance. In the meantime, as we wait for federal protections for outdoor workers, there are networks of federal workers—the CDC, OSHA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—connecting together in the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) to offer tools such as heat tracking and heat mapping. The sense of urgency is there, and the need is growing by the day; but the political and ethical will is a long time coming, with many interests opposing protective measures.

Into the breach step a few national organizations, reflecting a growing public health movement around climate justice. They are critically examining climate change by asking: Who is most at risk? What should be done to remedy the unequal exposure and burden on workers and their families? Key is the work of Public Citizen, a nonprofit, progressive consumer rights advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.; for several years it has pushed for a national protective standard that would protect workers from excessive heat. Public Citizen’s Juley Fulcher recently announced that Congress is finally showing signs of support for the labor-promoted Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act. Meanwhile, Public Citizen is galvanizing a Heat Stress Network to continue to pressure OSHA to activate an emergency rule on heat.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has also been strategic in building momentum for national legislation, while providing grounded information on regional heat conditions and strategies. Their reports are a significant contribution in helping us see into the modelling, data systems, and applications involved with these strategies. With a hard look into variable future scenarios, dependent on actions taken or not taken, their work sets out to portray, improve, and apply the emergent science on heat vulnerability and protection. Bottom line: Some will be affected more than others. A third vital force in the struggle to protect workers in the age of climate change is the Council on Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), shaped through a network of regional COSH groups, worker centers, justice groups, health care providers, and scientists. The COSH movement emerged alongside of OSHA and represents the democratization of science on behalf of working people. Jessica Martinez, COSH’s co-director, offers this profile of their efforts: The National COSH movement is committed to advancing the human and workplace rights of BIPOC workers disproportionately exposed to dangerous and inhumane working conditions. We support workers and advocate to build power by centering worker voices and leadership to demand jobs that are safe and healthy, and free from exploitation and abuse.

COSH is involved in the push for an effective national standard for heat exposure. While pushing for stronger protections targeting heat exposure, the COSH’s ongoing health training supports at-risk workers in activating the “general duty clause”—a founding element in the OSHA Act of 1970 which was supposed to assure that work environments are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Worker education and mutual support are key elements in building the movement around big-picture changes and daily survival.

Brittney Jenkins, a staff member at the COSH focusing on climate threats to workers, described some of the group’s organizing work for climate justice:

We support local campaigns (like WeCount’s ¡Qué Calor! campaign and Safe Jobs Oregon) that are currently fighting to implement heat stress protections in their states. We also acknowledge those states that have achieved some protection against heat stress in the workplace (like Nevada and Washington state). Since there is no national heat standard, these campaigns will be seen as the trailblazers and guidance posts for others. Expanding workers’ understanding of heat stress and climate change is the cornerstone of building a coalition where environmental groups and worker rights advocates fight together.

Moving Toward National Momentum

Campaigns and projects are quickly taking shape in different parts of the country—all essential parts of a movement trying to shape itself and make up for lost time. Some states—in the absence of a federal standard—are moving ahead to build the legislative and administrative structures that might protect workers. Not surprisingly, there is often a sense of too little, too late.

For example, in 2022, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (a division of the state’s Department of Labor and Industries) proposed a heat stress rule to protect workers from rising temperatures. However, many worker advocates, like Scott Schneider, an industrial hygienist and retired director of occupational health and safety at the Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of America, have serious concerns about the efforts to shape a rule in Maryland:

Heat is a growing concern in Maryland due, in part, to climate change. Maryland should not wait years for the federal government to act. We should be a leader among State Plans [OSHA-approved workplace safety and health programs operated by individual states or U.S. territories] and in protecting our workers. Unfortunately, the proposed state standard issued last October is woefully inadequate. We’re hopeful the new administration will act quickly to appoint a progressive Commissioner of Labor who will rewrite the draft standard into something that truly protects workers.

In other parts of the country, there are also projects grounded in community-based organizations like WeCount in South Florida, where temperatures exceed the 90-degrees Fahrenheit Heat Index more than 150 days each year. WeCount’s ¡Qué Calor! campaign is building the base of the movement, through popular education and political organizing at the municipal level. Their September 2021 Heat Assembly was dedicated to bringing public attention to what is going on in the fields, nurseries, sheds, and related outdoor worksites. While promoting national protections, they also remind local workers and residents of the urgent need for “water/shade/rest” in the midst of rising temperatures.

In North Carolina, nursing faculty and health care providers are researching working conditions for the state’s largely immigrant worker community. Their research has found that the “freedom to drink” plays a key role in worker safety during excessively hot days. Water access is impeded by a variety of factors, including long distances between workers in the field and water sources, distasteful or contaminated water, the fact that farmworkers’ homes do not always have an adequate untainted supply of water, and fear of not appearing as a “good worker” due to taking much-needed water breaks. Workers reported many problems to the researchers, while at the same time not wanting to complain. Their vulnerability to systemic pressures is bound to the long history of “agricultural exceptionalism” where these workers are pushed to over-adapt to conditions that clearly undermine their health and the health of their families.

California is ground-zero for the harsh conditions facing farmworkers, and for dedicated efforts to remedy the devolving situation. Over the past few years, extreme weather, elevated risks to health, altered work schedules, income loss, community disruptions and relocations, and food insecurity have all shaken the lives of farmworkers in the Golden State. In response, there has been a deepening of education, research, and public support. Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid system) has been expanded to include undocumented farmworkers, and there’s a push to extend all vital social benefits to immigrant workers. Groups like Jobs with Justice have given public voice to hazard pay through their community outreach efforts. Researchers such as Mike Méndez, a professor of urban planning and public policy at University of California-Irvine, articulate the need “to ensure that our offices of disaster response and offices of equity [which address systemic discrimination and inequities] are culturally and linguistically competent, and understand how to provide the resources and information that’s most culturally appropriate and unbiased.” UC-Merced released a report on farmworker health throughout the state, which was based on several years of extensive fieldwork and interviews with 1,200 workers. The report found that 43% of employers never provided heat illness information as mandated by California law, and 36% of workers said they’re not willing to report a violation, mostly because of fear of retaliation.

While state-level efforts are important, there are also efforts to organize across state lines in an attempt to push for more significant changes. California researchers, health practitioners, and farmworker activists are linked to a cross-state collaboration with health providers and advocates from Oregon and Washington. They joined together to promote the Western Pact to protect against heat and wildfire smoke. Advocates from local governments, nongovernmental organizations, community-based clinics, and labor have merged forces to push for a regional strategy that lobbies the West Coast governors to do all they can to shape state policies that are coordinated, consistent, and protective. This effort involves a compelling network, including the Northwest Regional Primary Care Association, groups like Nurses for Healthy Alliances, and labor—including the United Farm Workers (UFW), Piñeros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN in Oregon), Familias Unidas in northwestern Washington state, and Community to Community Development, a farmworker justice group based in Bellingham, Wash.—guided by principles of sustainability and eco-feminism. In Washington state, the temporary rules on heat and smoke call for rest breaks, shade, water, attention to workers’ pre-existing health conditions, and emergency work stoppages when air quality indexes hit the high marks. The tri-state mobilization is viewed as a model for needed protections against heat and smoke across the country. The strategic voices in this regional effort include social justice advocates, clinic outreach workers, and farmworker organizers.

Farmworkers Speak Out in Olympia

Every few months regional farmworkers make their way to Olympia, Wash., to press their message with Governor Jay Inslee: declare a climate emergency, strengthen the protective rules, make them real on a daily basis, and respect farmworkers’ lives. At a recent rally last August, signs were held up, directed to the governor and the Washington communities: “Shade, Water, Rest, Lives,” “We Feed You,” “We Won’t Be Sacrificed,” “We Are Not Machines,” “Stop Making Our Communities into Sacrifice Zones,” and “The Future of Food Belongs to Farmworkers.” Farmworkers spoke of the realities they face every day: the lack of enforcement of the limited protections that exist; split shifts, due to heat, where they are always on call; the absence of the called-for shade and rest breaks; the need for hazard pay; the need for education and informational materials to be in the languages spoken by farmworkers; and the unending burden on their families.

A key speaker was Rosalinda Guillen, the founder of Community to Community Development (a prominent group in the Pacific Northwest promoting farmworker justice). “We’ve been here a lot. The Washington food economy is built on our backs. The state owes me and others the right to defend ourselves. We have the right to participate in our protection,” Guillen said.

Although Washington is identified as a leader in the current crisis emergency, clearly much work remains to be done. Washington’s new Agricultural Compliance Unit shows promise, hiring all bilingual staff and improving the odds for the needed education, outreach, and enforcement that is needed. Ongoing hearings on heat and smoke—held by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, and open to the public—also show some promise.

Although there is more press coverage and scientific research on climate injustice and its impacts on agricultural workers, there is much need for broader public knowledge and support. From high school through undergraduate classes in sustainable agriculture, to professional education in agroeconomics and public health, there are places where we could and should be making the lives, work, and health of farmworkers a central part of the story. Some educators are prioritizing this through direct collaborations with regional farmworkers.

Ellen Shortt-Sanchez, the director of the Center for Community-Based Learning and Action at The Evergreen State College, describes one effort:

We needed to build long-term collaborations with local farmworker movements. Community-to-Community comes to the college as community educators for our annual Farm Worker Justice Day. The themes are directed by those on the front lines, including Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, Washington’s independent farmworker union of indigenous families. It’s important for us to recognize that frontline workers take time from their livelihoods and organizing to educate us about disaster response to Covid-19, Wildfire or Heatwaves. Many campus-community partnerships are connecting education and action in following the lead of farmworker movements.

In February of this year, attorney generals in seven states (New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) jointly issued a petition urging OSHA to create an emergency heat measure, focusing on 80-degrees exposure as the action point, to be activated by early May. The 44-page document reflects the building of knowledge from farmworkers and other outdoor workers and the evolving science on heat exposure. It stands as a key public document built on scientific, legal, and community standards of care. The attorney generals’ push at the national level mirrors and reinforces the struggles on the ground as another hot summer looms.

Emerging Principles and Guideposts

Health rights and climate justice in agriculture, as part of the broader worker health and climate justice movement, involves the following essential elements, as offered by workers, advocates, health providers, and health and climate justice strategists:

  • Farmworkers and their representatives should always be central participants at the table, guided by the principle of “nothing about us without us.”
  • Promising community, state, and regional efforts like the Western Pact should be seen as key building blocks, not endpoints; a national protective standard is urgently needed.
  • Farmworkers need and deserve pay increases and hazard pay, so that they are not cornered into sacrificing their health to put food on tables across the country.
  • Whistleblower protections must be assured, especially for undocumented workers.
  • Farmworkers, their families, and communities must be provided with adequate disaster-relief funding and services when they endure dramatic climate events from wildfires to floods.
  • Broad community knowledge about farmwork is vital to our shared public life as we endure the challenges of the climate crisis.
  • Protecting immigrant rights is central to building farmworker health rights.
  • Housing justice is a vital part of farmworker justice, assuring decent and safe life supports for families and communities.
  • Community health outreach workers can be strategic links by deepening and acting on their knowledge of occupational safety and health.
  • Farmworker safety and health will be most activated when it’s experienced as an essential part of the international movement for workers health, climate justice, and environmental protection.

Across the country there are networks moving in the very real time frame of climate change to quickly cobble together protections for farmworkers that have both immediate impacts and durability, which are long overdue and urgently needed. From regional movements to municipal actions, there is an effort to assert and ensure national—and global—farmworker justice.

is retired from teaching at The Evergreen State College, is a member of Strengthening Sanctuary Alliance (an immigrant rights group, based in Olympia, Wash.), and is part of the COSH Advisors Network.

An earlier version of this article— “Inequality Heats Up: More risk falls on people working outside”—appeared in the September 2022 issue of Works in Progress, a magazine based in Olympia, Wash.

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