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CLICK TO TAKE ACTION: New heat risk for farm workers during COVID-19

UFW, UFW Foundation leader urges U.S. climate crisis panel to protect farm workers from extreme heat and pesticides

Former United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez is in Washington D.C. testifying today before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis at a hearing entitled, “Creating a Climate Resilient America: Overcoming the Health Risks of the Climate Crisis.” Following is the testimony presented by Rodriguez, who still serves the union as president emeritus, representing the UFW and UFW Foundation

While many of us work in climate controlled environments, farm workers across the nation toil under the scorching sun and during extreme weather events, to cultivate and harvest the food that reaches our tables.  The danger farmworkers face due to heat exposure will only increase due to climate change.

In addition to heat, farm workers are also on the front lines of exposure to a range of harmful pesticides.  Not only is the use of pesticides expected to increase due to climate change, but the ways in which farmworkers protect themselves from harmful pesticides, such as by wearing extra clothing or personal protective equipment, can increase the risk of heat-related illness. 

Of the approximately 2.4 million farm workers across the country, roughly half of farmworkers are undocumented and roughly 10 percent are workers here on H-2A visas for temporary agricultural employment.  To keep their employers happy and be invited back, H-2A workers will work to the limits of their endurance. 

The issues I speak of are not hypothetical. The farmworker communities that we serve are intimately and tragically familiar with the dangers of pesticide and heat exposure, as well as other impacts from climate change, such as wildfires.

  • Asunción Valdivia was 53 years old.  He died of heat stroke after working for 10 hours in 105-degree temperatures.  Instead of calling an ambulance, Valdivia’s employer allegedly told his son to drive him home. 
  • Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez was only 17 years old. She was working in a vineyard and collapsed after laboring more than nine hours without access to shade or water.  Despite her fiance’s pleas for help, no paramedics were summoned. 
  • Miguel Angel Guzman Chavez was a 24-year-old farmworker that entered the country under the H-2A temporary agricultural work program.  He was picking tomatoes in the state of Georgia and died from heat on June 21, 2018, a few days after his arrival to the U.S.

When it comes to heat, a string of heat deaths drove us to take action. We worked with Congresswoman Judy Chu and helped convince then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue the first standards in the nation in 2005, protecting farm and other outdoor workers from extreme temperatures.

Later, in 2015, we worked with Governor Jerry Brown to strengthen the rules and ensure more effective, timely and consistent enforcement of the heat standard.

The standard requires that workers are provided with very basic yet life-saving protections:

  • Cool water
  • Shade at 80 degrees
  • High-heat procedures at 95 degrees and monitoring of workers.
  • Training to identify and prevent heat illness

And over time, we can see how some growers are embracing the standard and making an effort to improve the conditions under which workers receive shade, take breaks, and meal periods.

While the road to implementation and enforcement of the California standard has not been easy, the standard has secured meaningful improvements for farm workers and resulted in a notable reduction in the number of farmworker deaths related to heat hazards.

Behind me today is Pablo Martinez who has worked in the fields of Monterey County since he was 13 years old. As a farmworker and son of farmworkers, Pablo witnessed several of his coworkers pass out due to heat illness.  Before the existence of the standard, farmworkers would carry the affected farmworkers and try to find a tree or anywhere that could offer refuge from the sun.

Nowadays, and with access to water, shade, rest, training and emergency procedures, he can attest to the difference that the heat Standard makes in the lives of the people that feed us. 

California is:

  • the leading agricultural state in the nation
  • home to the largest number of farmworkers in the U.S..[i]
  • a testament to the feasibility of a national heat illness standard to protect outdoor workers
  • and a prime example that implementing commonsense heat illness protections is good for workers, employers and for our food system.

Since the standard went into effect, California’s farming industry has continued to prosper. In fact, from 2008-2018, the state experienced a nearly 34 percent increase in cash receipts for all agricultural commodities.[ii]   

The only way we can assure that Maria Isavel, Asuncion, Miguel Angel and others didn’t die in vain is by protecting the workers most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change with a national Heat Illness standard.

We stand ready to work with members of this committee, and beyond, to stop unnecessary illnesses and deaths, and advance national safeguards to protect the most vulnerable workers and communities from the impacts of climate change.