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As the world faces an increase in the duration, frequency and intensity of heat waves, a panel of Stanford scholars and other experts recently analyzed the risk of extreme heat for farmworkers in a climate resilience webinar.

The average number of days U.S. farmworkers will spend working in unsafe conditions will double by the middle of the century, according to a 2020 study by a now-research scientist at Stanford. Paired with a lack of federal protections, extreme heat can be deadly for the farmworkers exposed outside all day, said the panelists.

Senior research fellow Noah Diffenbaugh said that a small amount of warming can lead to a large change in both the frequency and the severity of heat waves. Places are becoming warmer in general, and the atmospheric pressure patterns that create heat waves are occurring more often and more intensely. It’s why summers have been feeling a lot warmer than they have 10, 20 years ago.

“The kinds of events that we’ve seen this summer and in previous summers, they’re not just our imagination or the effects of social media and conventional media giving us awareness that it’s hot in lots of different places at once,” Diffenbaugh said. “It’s actually true.”

And the gap between what’s happening and what communities are prepared for is only getting bigger, he said. With more heat comes less water resources, more wildfires and poorer air quality due to changes in atmospheric circulation. Low-wage farmworkers are often at the mercy of the elements, despite the health consequences, simply because there is no other option.

“I used to be a real adaptation optimist. A decade ago… I was really optimistic that by investing in economic development and human development, that we could generate the resources that would follow along, but I was wrong about that,” Diffenbaugh said.

An issue of health equity

Standford health expert Michele Barry said this is a health equity issue at its core.

“Outdoor, low-wage laborers whose work might get canceled by weather impacts can’t necessarily bear many days without pay — and people might continue to work because of financial needs even if not a healthy choice,” Barry said in a Q&A before the event. “Many low-wage outdoor laborers also don’t have access to the same health care resources as higher-income populations — which is especially unfair given climate change’s outsized impacts on their health.”

Eriberto Fernández of the farmworker advocacy group United Farm Workers Foundation said that there has been progress in the state — for example, there are now shade tents and trucks next to fields where there weren’t a decade ago.

There is also a state policy to ensure employers effectively respond to heat illness symptoms, which came about after a 17-year-old pregnant girl died from heat exhaustion while picking grapes in Lodi in 2008.

“It’s mind-boggling to think that at this stage, with the increasing impacts of climate change, that we still don’t have a federal standard that ensures farmworkers, and every outdoor worker, have meaningful protections at the workplace,”

Eriberto Fernández, United Farm Workers Foundation

“Her story, unfortunately, is not unique to her. It’s a story that many people among the farm working community are aware of, because it’s not an isolated incident,” Fernández said.

He still considers heat to be the number one killer farmworkers face, because despite the state standards, safety violations are vastly underreported. Fernández calls on oversight agencies to better staff outreach teams and provide resources in multiple languages in order to be a community-competent resource.

“Farm workers, most of whom are undocumented, have a real fear of the authorities. These agencies, as well-intentioned as they are, are viewed as the authorities,” he said.

Fernández also believes state policy should be backed by federal standards. As it stands, there is no federal heat standard that protects farmworkers from extreme conditions.

“It’s mind-boggling to think that at this stage, with the increasing impacts of climate change, that we still don’t have a federal standard that ensures farmworkers, and every outdoor worker, have meaningful protections at the workplace,” he said.