Climate change is taking its toll on rural workers and not just by making it hotter.
But while the threats are many, there is little legislation to protect them, officials said. In some states, legislators are even pulling back rules and ordinances designed to help employees who work outside.
On July 27, President Joe Biden said his administration would be taking steps to bolster worker protections from the heat and to enforce actions against employers that don’t protect their employees.
Biden said he was requesting the U.S. Department of Labor to issue the first-ever “Hazard Alert” for heat. Additionally, he said he had instructed the department to ramp up enforcement to protect workers from extreme heat and to provide employers with information about what they can and should do to protect workers, and information to employees about what their rights are.
Lauren Kraemer, associate professor at Oregon State University, who focuses on public health issues that impact farm workers, said rural workers face a number of issues due to climate change. While this year’s extreme heat is one threat, others are smoke and air quality from wildfires burning in Canada, as well as increased threats from disease-carrying bugs and exacerbated mental health issues.
“It’s really multifactorial,” she said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “There’s heat effects; there’s smoke effects; there’s changes in the crops because of the smoke.”
In some cases, the impact of climate change is evident – working in extreme heat can cause serious illness or injury. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 2011, more than 430 workers across the United States have died due to heat exposure. The BLS estimates some 700,000 workers were injured due to heat exposure between 1992 and 2019.
And the heat can have deadly consequences.
On June 19, Justin “Cory” Foster, 35, from Hurricane, West Virginia, was working as a lineman in Marshall, Texas. As a heat dome settled over the state, temperatures soared to 95 degrees with 60% humidity. According to the National Weather Service, the heat index made it feel like 113 in Marshall that day.
Foster worked for Appalachian Power in West Virginia and was in Texas to help restore power after an early summer storm took out electrical lines in East Texas. Officials said after working in the heat all day, Foster told his coworkers he was sick. He was treated, given water, and took a shower. When Foster’s roommate returned from his shift later that night, he found Foster unresponsive on the floor of their hotel room. He told officials he tried to wake Foster up, but couldn’t. Emergency personnel were called, but they were not able to revive him. At the time, officials said they believed his death was due to the heat.
Kreamer said regulations from the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, protect farm workers and outdoor workers like Foster from smoke and heat. Passed in 2022, the Heat and Smoke Rules require employers to provide water, shade, and an emergency medical plan, as well as a plan in place when the heat index rises above 90 degrees for identifying if an employee has a heat-related illness and a written heat-illness prevention rest break schedule. Employers also must have a heat-illness prevention plan in place. The state also requires employers to provide training, information, approved face masks and other procedures to limit exposure to wildfire smoke when the Air Quality Index value is 101 or above.
The day the legislation went into effect, June 15, 2022, Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, the Associated Oregon Loggers Inc. and the Oregon Forest and Industries Council sued to overturn the legislation in federal court. That case is still pending.
Only four other states – California, Washington, Minnesota, and Colorado, have enacted heat-related illness prevention standards for employers.
On the other end of the spectrum, Texas recently passed legislation that would repeal any local ordinances that require employers to protect their workers in the heat. Texas Governor Gregg Abbott signed House Bill 2127, known as the “Death Star” bill, into law in June, just as Texas was beginning a heatwave that brought triple digit temperatures to most of the state. Legislators said it protected businesses from confusing and conflicting regulations across the state.
But there are no federal standards when it comes to protecting workers from the heat. On July 25, a group of 113 members of Congress sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to push OSHA to institute federal heat-related worker protection standards.
The letter asks Acting U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Julie Su and OSHA Assistant Secretary Douglas Parker to establish an enforceable standard that would require employers to provide adequate protections.
“We are in the midst of a climate emergency,” U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) said in a statement. “Record temperatures and extreme weather across the country are affecting everyone—but especially workers who work outside. In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, workers shouldn’t be dying from heat-related illnesses.”
In 2021, OSHA published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking for heat standards, but so far, no final rulemaking has been released. Officials said it could take years before a standard is finalized. However, the agency has introduced a National Emphasis Program which calls for inspections at more than 70 “high-risk” industries when the heat index reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. That program is set to continue through 2025.
But rural workers also face dangers from smoke, Kraemer said. Recent wildfires in Canada have impacted air quality, she said, making working outside dangerous for farm workers.
“There really is not great evidence for what happens to the human body with prolonged episodic periods of really high extreme smoke inhalation,” she said. “But we know there are really strong acute effects: headaches and itchy watery eyes and exacerbation of heart and lung conditions, higher stroke, asthma attack heart attack rates… I can’t imagine having to work outside in a full respirator mask on an eight to 10 hour shift moving up and down a ladder, carrying heavy loads. It feels pretty untenable.”
Smoke can also impact rural workers’ mental health, she said. Like we saw in the Northeast earlier this summer, the post-apocalyptic feel of the haze smoke causes can create feelings of dread, she said, while staying inside away from the smoke can increase feelings of isolation and anxiety.
Adding to the stress rural workers feel is the impact climate change has on their financial health. When crops don’t grow, or don’t grow big enough, farmers may choose not to pick them, leaving workers who are paid based on how much they pick with little to no income. That added financial stress can impact both physical and mental health in rural workers, she said.