American farmworkers are increasingly at risk of heat-related illness and death as climate change drives temperatures around the world to record highs. That’s pushing more and more workers to harvest crops at night to avoid extreme heat, according to recent reports, which is creating a host of new risks that experts say need to be more thoroughly studied.
More than 2 million U.S. farmworkers, who typically toil outdoors under a hot summer sun, are exceptionally at risk of succumbing to heat-related illness, the Environmental Defense Fund warned in a July report, with heat-related mortalities 20 times higher for crop workers than in other private industries, as well as employees in local and state government. About three weeks of the summer harvest season are now expected to be too hot to safely work outdoors, the report’s authors added, and that number will only increase as global warming continues.
Government data and other studies have found that an average of 43 farmworkers die every year from heat-related illness. But top officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees U.S. working conditions, say that number is significantly undercounted, largely because heat doesn’t get factored into deaths from cardiac arrests and respiratory failures. One advocacy group estimated that heat exposure could be responsible for as many as 2,000 worker fatalities in the U.S. each year.
In fact, this summer was the hottest on record for the entire northern hemisphere, federal scientists announced in September, in large part because of climate change. Parts of the Midwest and large regions of Europe are also experiencing record hot Octobers.
As the daytime heat has gone up, a growing number of agriculture workers—many of whom are Latino and undocumented—now work while it’s still dark out. But that could be trading one risk for a set of others, labor and safety advocates are warning.
“What concerns me most is the negative impacts on workers,” Heather Riden, program director at UC Davis Western Center on Agriculture Health and Safety, said in an interview with Civil Eats. “What does it mean to have a person work three or four hours in the morning, then come back in the evening to work another three or four hours? And what does that do for their sleep schedule, their family life, and their ability to stay awake when they’re driving at two in the morning? That is where we don’t have data; we don’t know the bigger-picture implications.”
The UC center published a report in 2019 that pointed to the increasing trend of nighttime crop harvesting, noting that such work could be causing more accidents due to poor visibility and tired employees. Working at early hours is especially dangerous for farmworkers who operate machinery, the report said, and the practice could even lead to disrupted sleep and hormone cycles that contribute to long-term health issues for workers, including an increased chance for miscarriages.
Lorena Abalos, who harvests cherries and blueberries in Washington state with her teenage son, told NPR that they began starting their shifts at 3 a.m. or earlier after an especially severe heat wave killed hundreds of people in 2021 across swaths of the Pacific Northwest. Harvesting at night, however, proved to be its own danger, she said, so she stopped bringing her son along.
“I no longer wanted to take him when we started to go in at 3 a.m. because it was very dangerous,” she said. “We would run into snakes, other animals and we pick blindly because they gave us a little lamp and we barely see our hands.”
Some states have passed safety standards for outdoor agricultural work that takes place at night. California, for example, approved standards in 2020 that require adequate lighting that minimizes glare, rear lighting for self-propelled equipment, pre-shift safety meetings and reflective safety gear for workers to wear. But it’s unclear how well those standards are being enforced, and because there are no federal regulations, many other outdoor workers in states without requirements remain unprotected.
Advocates have been calling for such federal protections for years, but to no avail. That means—at least for now—many farmworkers will be stuck choosing between which threat they want to face: the heat or the dark.
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