Pedro Lucas, left, nephew of farm worker Sebastian Francisco Perez who died while working in an extreme heat wave, breaks up earth near St. Paul, Oregon. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Establishing federal standards to protect workers from heat-related health threats is a matter of life and death for rural workers, according to advocates and lawmakers who are pushing for regulatory changes.

Agricultural workers are more likely to suffer heat-related deaths or injuries, said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns with United Farm Workers, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

“Farm workers have always been at the forefront of heat illnesses, injuries and deaths from heat,” she said. “There’s data that shows they are as much as 35 times more likely than other workers to die” because of exposure to heat.

Outdoor workers in rural areas are also more likely to suffer because of the additional time first-responders need to reach victims in rural settings, she said.

“Not just because it’s rural, but often workers or even supervisors can’t easily tell emergency dispatchers how to find them,” Strater said. “If a worker calls 911, there is often no physical address in the traditional sense.”

Many times, she said, advocates use latitude and longitude, supplemented by descriptions of landmarks, to file safety violation complaints.

The average number of heat-related worker deaths has doubled since the early 1990s, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In October of last year, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking additional information about “the extent and nature of hazardous heat in the workplace and the nature and effectiveness of interventions and controls used to prevent heat-related injury and illness.”  

But final rules could take nearly a decade, said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate with Public Citizen.

“It takes on average 7.9 years for OSHA to make a rule from start to finish,” Fulcher said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “Workers can’t wait that long.”

Public Citizen and other advocates petitioned for an emergency standard last summer, she said, but so far the agency has not responded to that petition.

Last year, legislation proposed by U.S. Representative Judy Chu (D-California) in the House, and U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Alex Padilla (D-California) in the Senate, would have forced OSHA to make those changes. The legislation stands a good chance of being passed in the House, Fulcher said, but is not likely to pass in the Senate.

If the legislation were to pass, Strater said, it would save lives.

“I think having a standard like that in place of the federal level would be revolutionary,” she said. “Most farm workers don’t have protections at all. .. [The legislation would be]a framework that is going to be absolutely life-saving. We need urgent action, though. Workers are dying right now.”

Fulcher said farm workers have higher rates of heat-related deaths workers in any other industry.

“When you look at the actual number of deaths, there are more construction workers with heat-related fatalities,” she says. “But that’s because there are a lot more construction workers than there are farm workers. When you look at the actual rates within construction and within farm work, you find a much higher fatality rate in farm workers.”

Farm-workers’ fatality rate is likely even higher because heat-related deaths can be grossly under-reported, she said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2011 and 2020, there were an estimated 3,400 workplace heat-related injuries and illnesses annually. Over that same time period, BLS estimates that an average of 40 workers died annually from heat-related causes.

That data is unreliable, Fulcher said in her report “Boiling Point” for Public Citizen. For one, the information is self-reported, with less than half of all employers maintaining their records. Additionally, she said, the data may be hampered by employers listing other causes for injury than the BLS category “exposure to environmental heat.” 

For instance, if an employee is on a ladder, gets hot and feels dizzy, and falls, the employer may identify that injury as a fall, instead of a heat-related.

Public Citizen estimates instead that there may be as many as 170,000 heat-related injuries and illnesses and between 600 and 2,000 heat-related deaths each year.

A review of OSHA records by the Daily Yonder found that there were only eight people who died in 2021 because of heat-stroke, heat-related stress, or heat exhaustion. Of those, three were farm workers or landscapers and six were in rural areas. In 2020, OSHA recorded 26 deaths due to the heat. Nine of those were agricultural and more than a dozen were in rural areas.

One of those deaths was Sebastian Francisco Perez.

Part of a work crew for Ernst Nursery & Farms in St. Paul, Oregon, he was moving irrigation lines at the nursery when he complained about the 104-degree heat. When he didn’t appear at the end of his shift, co-workers went looking for him. They found him collapsed between two rows of trees. He was unresponsive.

An investigation by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division later found that Perez had suffered from cardiovascular and respiratory failure caused by heat exhaustion and dehydration. 

Because of cases like Perez’s, three states – Washington, Oregon, and California – have put in place heat-related workplace standards.

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