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Research shows harm of heat on Florida Farmworkers

A Florida farm of greens used in the floral industry
Courtesy Farmworker Association of Florida
A Florida farm of greens used in the floral industry

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention was paid to the farmworkers who are essential to keeping food on U.S. tables. Here in Florida, they also face extreme, even life-threatening heat, especially as temperatures rise with climate change.

Roxanna Chicas is an assistant professor at the School of Nursing at Emory University. She’s been studying the health of Florida’s farmworkers.

As a nurse researcher and an immigrant, she is concerned about the record breaking temperatures that many in Florida and across the country face. She's also worried about how lack of labor protections and legal status contributes to the deterioration of the workers’ health, and human dignity.

"We have found that farm workers are often chronically dehydrated, they often also exceed the recommended threshold of 38 degrees Celsius, which is 100.4 Fahrenheit. So once you exceed that threshold, you're basically working with a fever, except you have no infection… We've also found that there is a link between heat exposure and the risk of acute kidney injury," says Chicas.

Chicas says her research shows that a Florida farmworker can suffer from acute kidney injury after just one work day. Worse, research shows that acute kidney injury can happen repeatedly over a lifetime of work. Chicas says in Central America, seemingly healthy farmworkers are dying from chronic kidney disease.

In the United States, Chicas says there is no tracking the number of agricultural workers dying from heat or heat related illnesses like kidney disease. Workers are frequently undocumented, they might not have an ID or anyone to speak on their behalf, to explain to emergency responders in an ambulance or at the hospital what happened or what they are going through.

"I think two things need to change. Number one, we need federal heat protection standards. Currently, there are no federal heat protection standards to protect workers. There are guidelines that OSHA the Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides, but no regulations in place," says Chicas. "The second one is that … there's about 50 to 70% of farmworkers in the United States are undocumented. So they lack legal status, and therefore, they're extremely vulnerable to being exploited at their jobs, therefore, they keep quiet, right, because they fear deportation…. I think if we could change those two things, we could improve the working conditions of farmworkers."

Chicas says farmworkers often need to provide their own drinking water, because growers may not. The farmworkers are also working in the extreme heat for very little money. A farmworker who is, for example, picking ferns, might make just thirty two cents for picking one bundle of 20 fern leaves, used in the floral industry.

Chicas adds Americans need to be aware of what farmworkers go through to put food on their tables, and demand their local, state, and federal government protect these workers deemed "essential" throughout the pandemic.

"American consumers need to raise their voice and, and help protect them," said Chicas.