It is sweltering in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest this week, and farm workers are among the most vulnerable.
Ángeles Cárdenas and his small team finished their workday on Wednesday earlier than usual, as they likely will for the rest of the week. There were few trees and little shade in the Nampa cornfield where they worked until 2:30 pm The National Weather Service recorded a maximum temperature of 104 degrees in Nampa at noon.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want to do this job,” Cárdenas told the Idaho Statesman by phone Wednesday.
Experts and advocates are calling for caution – and change – as the Northwest goes through a period of extreme heat lasting several days that has had deadly consequences across the region. Hundreds of dead in the United States and Canada have been linked to the heatwave, especially among people without air conditioning in their home or workplace.
Workers working outdoors are particularly at risk. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warns that “dozens of workers die from the heat every year and thousands get sick.” The Oregonian reported the heat-related death of at least one farm worker this week.
“These are extreme temperatures; they are outside the norm, ”said Elizabeth Strater of United Farm Workers. “I know this is a historic heat wave, but I don’t think it will be on the history books. It will happen more and more. And right after a heat like this, fires and air are poisonous. ”
Farmer advocacy organizations such as UFW say the extreme heat in areas where this is unusual – many places in Oregon, Washington state and northern Idaho, for example – is l ‘one of the reasons why you have to be stronger federal standards protecting workers from heat. Strater said many migrate across different states for work, but employers in traditionally cooler locations might not understand the magnified risks to workers once temperatures rise above 100 degrees.
“The lack of federal standards puts workers in all states at risk,” Strater said. “You cannot educate and empower workers about their rights. We need a federal standard that recognizes the real building blocks needed to save the lives of the men, women and children who work in our food supply chain. “
What makes farm workers particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness and death?
Hot summers are always dangerous, but unusually extreme weather conditions are more perilous and deadly.
According to David Paul, an exercise physiologist at the University of Idaho, people’s bodies have strategies to adapt to the heat, but it can take weeks. This is part of the reason why OSHA says most work-related heat deaths occur in the first few days of work in very high temperatures.
Even though it’s been hot for a while OSHA recommends that new workers and those returning from an extended absence should start with 20% of the workload on the first day.
And the temperature isn’t the only consideration. Sunlight can add at least 15 degrees to heat, according to national weather service website. The dry soil is also very reflective, geologist David Wilkins of Boise State University told Idaho Statesman in a phone interview.
“Between the rows (which are irrigated) it’s pretty dry,” Wilkins said. “(Farmers) will receive direct sunlight, bouncing off the surface.”
The ground itself is also very warm, as dry ground is a poor heat carrier – just like sand on a beach is scorching hot, but about an inch below it is cool.
Since southern Idaho is so far west in the mountain time zone and there is daylight saving time in the summer as well, Boise’s sun peaks just before 2 p.m. this week. But it takes a while for the sunlight to warm the area, which is why the temperature was actually hottest around 4:30 p.m. this week, according to Wilkins.
This is also the reason why it is usually cooler soon after sunrise, when the earth has had a chance to cool down overnight. This heating is also cumulative. If it is hot one day and not cool enough at night, the next day will usually only be warmer.
Smoke, whether from forest fires or fireworks, can also alter the temperature change between night and day. Smoke from California wildfires could blow through Idaho over the next 36 hours.
“Nighttime temperatures don’t tend to drop as much if you have a valley full of smoke,” Wilkins said.
Since particles in the air absorb and scatter sunlight, more smoke could also mean lower daytime temperatures. But the night will be warmer.
How to stay safe while working in the heat
The Idaho Community Council and other advocacy groups tried to distribute water to farm worker families, and the council even raffled coolers at a Sunday event. Treasure Valley towns such as Boise and Nampa have set up cooling centers for people, but most are far from agricultural areas where farm laborers work.
Luke Ankeny, executive director of the Marsing Farm Labor Sponsorship Committee, said employers try to stock up on ice, gatorade and bottled water to supply their workers – but they sometimes run into obstacles. Ankeny said he and his staff had struggled to get enough supplies this week as many stores they visited were either sold out or had limits on items.
The farmers Ankeny sends work teams to are “super understanding” about the risks of heat and ready to make adjustments. But some contract jobs are already taking longer than usual due to a persistent shortage of workers that existed even before the heatwave, in large part due to the pandemic.
“We know we’re going to be late because of the heat,” Ankeny said. “We’re already shorthanded and with the heat we have to stop early. It’s just hot, you can’t work that hard. We will certainly be behind.
Since humans regulate their internal temperature by sweating, it’s important to stay hydrated, and the best way to do this is to simply drink water regularly.
“If you drink water before you exercise, you will pass a certain amount of it. But if you start to exercise and drink water, you retain water better, ”Paul said. OSHA recommends plenty of water – “about one cup every 15 minutes.”
Caffeine and alcohol are said to make people urinate more, which contributes to dehydration, Paul said.
All stimulants, including allergy medications, can raise heart rates and dehydrate people, Dr. Martha Taylor of St. Luke said in a telephone interview. This eases illnesses caused by heat.
To protect yourself from the sun, OSHA recommends wearing “loose, long-sleeved shirts and long pants.” UV damage adds up over the course of your life, Taylor said.
“So anytime you are able to block some of that UV… that would be great,” Taylor said. “And again, every bit counts.”
The best protection, of course, is to avoid outside heat whenever possible.
“If you’re doing any physical labor, whether you’re in the shade or in the sun, it’s going to be pretty brutal,” Wilkins said.
There is increased concern for older farm workers. Ankeny said the majority of people working in their teams are over 50, and even between 60, 70 and 80, which is not uncommon in agricultural work. Taylor said that among vulnerable populations, those most susceptible to heat exhaustion are “the elderly, especially with pre-existing conditions.”
“The inability of these elderly patients to have better control of their blood pressure, heart rate, and ability to sweat (is) associated with the fact that more of these elderly patients will be taking medications that you predispose to these heats of effort. diseases, ”Taylor said. “Add them together, it’s only a recipe for disaster, especially at temperatures above 100 degrees.”