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Facing rising temperatures and pollution, farmworkers are being left behind by Florida lawmakers

Monday, August 27th, 2018

APOPKA, FLORIDA — An election is happening on Tuesday, but Florida’s farmworkers seem largely underwhelmed.

“I don’t think they care, to tell the truth, I really don’t think they care,” says Linda Lee as she sits in front of her small house near the sprawling Lake Apopka, just northwest of Orlando.

A former farmworker and vocal activist, the 66-year-old grandmother is hardly an apathetic presence. What happens in the state’s capital, Tallahassee — and in the nation’s further north in Washington D.C. — impacts Lee’s family and life. But years of silence from lawmakers have taught farmworkers in this area that if they want things to change, they’ll have to be the ones to drive the conversation.

For decades, farmworkers in the Sunshine State have waged war — against pollution and pesticides, against hardline immigration laws, against low wages. Now, amid warming temperatures and shifting weather patterns, they are increasingly turning their attention to climate change. And they plan to address the issue with or without the willing cooperation of lawmakers.

Orlando, the metropolis neighboring Apopka, is home to the sprawling tourist attraction Disney World. Where Orlando offers glitter and glam for millions of visitors every year, the area surrounding Lake Apopka is a study in contrasts. The area is traditionally home to farming country, with an emphasis on the citrus so often associated with Florida.

That claim to fame has a tragic coda. Pesticides associated with agriculture have contributed to making Lake Apopka one of the state’s leading cautionary tales. Pollution in the lake is overwhelming. Once a fisherman’s paradise, the area is now infamous for the deformities alligators and other animals have developed thanks to exposure to insecticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT.

What has happened to Lake Apopka’s wildlife is well-known, but the trauma haunting the area’s residents has largely been glossed over.

Exposure to pesticides has plagued Apopka’s farmworkers for generations, something people like Linda Lee know well. Lee lost both a daughter and a granddaughter to the inflammatory disease lupus, something she believes is likely the result of their proximity to pesticides in the area.

Their deaths have haunted her, but she remains committed to fighting for her community and for herself. These days, that means broadening the conversations farmworkers have about issues like pesticides, or the hardline anti-immigration policies that directly impact undocumented workers.

“We can’t stop God, for one thing,” Lee says, referring to climate change. “But I think that people, especially the people sitting up in Washington, they need to do more.”

Farmworkers have long been among the most vulnerable people in the United States, largely cut out of labor protections and provided few rights under the law. Most are Black and Latinx, many are immigrants, and virtually all are low-income. Their vulnerable status has often seen them left out of conversations surrounding issues like climate change.

That’s something people like Jeannie Economos want to change. Economos works with the Farmworker Association of Florida, or FWAF, an organization that has fought to protect the state’s farmworkers and advocate for them.

Much of her work with FWAF has been focused on “health and safety” concerns relating to pesticides, Economos says, but that’s changing.

“For the past few years,” she continues, “with the changing climate and hotter temperatures, we’ve been more concerned about [the] impact of heat stress.”

In July, FWAF joined a coalition of 130 organizations calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require employers to protect workers from the heat. Mandatory rest breaks, access to shade, and frequent hydration are among the demands included in a petition sent to the agency.

According to the petition’s analysis, heat has killed more than 780 workers across the country between 1992 and 2016, and seriously injured nearly 70,000. With climate change, heat stress is likely to get worse and put more people at risk.

Economos says joining the OSHA petition was a “no-brainer” for FWAF, but she emphasized that for local activists, the effort is only one part of a larger fight.

“We’re really concerned about the effects of both climate change and heat, in many ways, in Florida,” she says. “We’re concerned about the acute and immediate impacts of heat, the long-term impact of heat-exposure and chronic dehydration, [that it could] shorten a person’s work years and possible their life.”

But the sun isn’t the only problem. Climate change is also warming waters off of Florida’s coast, something that scientists say is exacerbating the intensity of hurricanes. And when those hurricanes hit, they destroy property along with agriculture, a dual blow for farmworkers.

“Hurricane Irma did a lot of damage to the crops in Florida,” Economos says, pointing to the major storm that hit the state last fall. “A lot [of areas] had damage, a lot of rental homes were impacted. And farmworkers, living in trailers, even if [the trailers] were damaged, they had to pay rent. The crop was also damaged. They had no work and they had to pay rent.”

Talking about climate change doesn’t mean advocates are abandoning their focus on other issues. But global warming is becoming a major focus of groups like FWAF. And they’re not alone — in the midst of a heated election year, climate issues have taken center-stage in Florida, with sea-level rise and a toxic algae bloom crisis emerging as major themes, along with long-standing points of contention like offshore drilling.

Whatever way the wind blows on Tuesday during Florida’s primary elections, Apopka area residents like Lee say they are ready to hold lawmakers accountable to the farmworkers they have long ignored.

“When they get in office, they close and lock their doors. You call them on the telephone, [their assistants say] they’re in Washington, they’re in Tallahassee, they’re never where you need them to be until it’s time to vote,” says Lee.

She smirks. “And it’s coming time to vote.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. Crunden is a reporter at ThinkProgress focused on environmental and world issues, as well as immigration and social justice in the U.S. South and Appalachia. Texpat. She/her, they/them, or no pronouns. Get in touch: ecrunden@thinkprogress.org.

As the Planet Warms, Can OSHA Protect Workers From Extreme Heat?

Monday, July 23rd, 2018

On July 17, more than 130 groups and individuals petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in an attempt to establish a nationwide workplace heat standard. The petition cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows that at least 783 U.S. workers died as a result of extreme heat between 1992 and 2016, while at least 69,374 were seriously injured. Organized by the consumer and health advocacy group Public Citizen, the petition demonstrates how the climate change crisis will inevitably lead to more injuries and deaths, as it increases the amount of days that workers have to endure extreme heat.

There is a general OSHA requirement meant to protect individuals from workplace hazards, but advocates for a heat standard argue that this rule doesn’t do enough to protect workers from this specific danger. Environmental groups like Earthjustice, labor organizations like the United Farm Workers, and former OSHA directors Eula Bingham and David Michaels, were among those who voiced their concerns.

“Although OSHA has authority to protect workers from heat stress by enforcing [the general requirement], there are a lot of benefits to having a specific rule,” David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s climate program, told In These Times. “First, OSHA simply doesn’t do much of that type of enforcement on heat stress.

“A specific rule on heat puts employers on notice of what exactly they should do,” Arkush continued. “That’s important because many will voluntarily follow the law. It’s much better to tell employers directly what they must do to keep workers safe than to police them after the fact under a vague safety standard.”

The petition calls for a whole new set of workplace regulations geared towards extreme heat. These include sufficient shade during rest breaks, adequate hydration, stricter monitoring for heat stress and training to help supervisors cut back on heat risks. The standard would also require employers to keep records of heat-related incidents and establish a whistleblower protection program to ensure that workers could report head standard violations without fear or repercussions.

The petition comes at the same time as a new report from Public Citizen, which details the impact that extreme heat can have on workers. The report warns that global warming will worsen workplace hazards, citing a 2017 study by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which estimates that almost half of the world’s population will experience more than 20 days of deadly heat every year by 2100.

The report also relies on weather forecasts compiled by the nonprofit group Climate Central, which looked at 133 U.S. cities to determine how many of their workers will experience deadly levels of heat in the coming years. Public Citizen matched Climate Central’s data against Census employment statistics to estimate how severely workers will be impacted by climate change. These cities experienced an average of 20 dangerous heat days in 2000 (the National Weather Service classifies anything above 104 degrees as dangerous). By 2050, that average will increase to 58 days.

Public Citizen generated a “worker-days metric” by multiplying the amount of workers in a given occupation by the amount of dangerous heat days that the respective cities are predicted to experience. For example, if a city has 1,000 construction workers and is predicted to experience three dangerous heat days, then that city would end up with 3,000 dangerous worker-days. In 2000, agriculture workers in these 133 cities experienced 3.4 million worker-days in dangerous heat. Using Public Citizen’s metric, that number would go up to 12.8 million by 2030 and 15.3 by 2050.

The numbers are even more extreme for construction workers. In 2000, construction workers in these cities experienced 35.3 million worker-days in extreme heat. That number is set to reach 76.4 in 2030 and 95.1 million in 2050. While these numbers might seem staggering, they’re actually only conservative estimates,as they are based on 2016 population numbers and the amount of workers in these cities will likely increase.

In addition to the petition, California Rep. Judy Chu (D) announced last week on a Public Citizen press call that she will introduce a piece of related legislation soon. California is just one of three states that already has local protective heat standards, which were established in 2005 after Chu pushed them as a state assemblywoman. That fight was initiated by the United Farm Workers after a woman named Asuncion Valdivia died from heat exposure during the summer of 2004. Valdivia died after picking grapes for 10 hours in weather that was over 100 degrees. “Workers, including farmworkers who endure difficult labor and long hours to put food on our tables, are vulnerable to dangerous working conditions,” saidChu during the press event.

A study published in Nature Climate Change last year finds that the frequency of deadly heat waves is likely to increase, warning: “An increasing threat to human life from excess heat now seems almost inevitable, but will be greatly aggravated if greenhouse gases are not considerably reduced.” Despite this danger, the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement last year. “I consider climate change to be not one of our big problems,” he said on the campaign trail in 2015. The administration has also drastically cut back on OSHA workplace inspections, easing regulations and workplace deaths rise.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.

As Temperatures Climb Across the Country, Workers Will Suffer

Monday, July 11th, 2016

elizabeth grossmanThe summer of 2016 is barely two weeks old, but this year is already on track to break high temperature records in the United States. On June 20, cities across the Southwest and into Nevada reached all-time triple-digit highs. Meanwhile, every single state experienced spring temperatures above average, with some in the Northwest reaching record highs. These temperatures have already proved deadly, killing five hikers in Arizona earlier this month. Triple-digit heat earlier that same week is also being blamed for the deaths of two construction workers, 49-year old Dale Heitman in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 15 and 55-year old Thomas F. “Tommy” Barnes on June 14 at the Monsanto campus in nearby Chesterfield, Missouri.

“I’ve been around since 1973 and we’ve never seen anything like this,” David Zimmermann, president and business manager of Sheet Metal Workers Local 36, told the St. Louis-Southern Illinois Labor Tribune. “With these new buildings, once they close them in, with the guys working in there, it’s like working in a big oven.”

While 100-degree heat in June may be unusual, serious illness and deaths caused by extreme heat at U.S. job sites is not. Last year, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) received more than 200 reports of workers hospitalized because of heat-related illness and at least eight deaths associated with heat exposure. According to OSHA, since 2003, heat has killed—on average—more than 30 workers a year. In 2014, 2,630 U.S. workers suffered from heat illness and 18 died on the job from heat stroke and related causes.

Of these deaths, nine occurred in the workers’ first three days on the job, four of them on the worker’s first day—and at workplaces where employers had no way of allowing new workers to acclimatize to the heat. These numbers have been even worse in the past. In 2011, heat killed 61 U.S. workers and sickened 4,420. OSHA has already begun investigating several heat-related on-the-job fatalities this year, including the two in Missouri.

“Heat can kill. And it is especially tragic when someone dies of heat exposure because they’re simply doing their job. We see cases like this every year and every one of them is preventable,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, David Michaels on a June 27 call with reporters. “We also know that in this current heat wave workers are concerned about their safety. In fact we’ve received a record number of emails, comments and questions regarding heat and worker rights in recent weeks.”

Michaels spoke with reporters as part of OSHA’s launch of this year’s “water-rest-shade campaign,” the agency’s ongoing effort to prevent work-related heat illness.

As part of its campaign, OSHA is upping its efforts to educate employers and workers on the danger of heat. OSHA’s Atlanta region that covers eight southern states planned a one-hour safety “stand down” at construction sites and other workplaces. OSHA has also updated its “heat app” for smartphones and tablets. This uses National Weather Service data to calculate the heat index at worksites and advise when the risk level is high. The app, which is available in English and Spanish, also includes information about identifying and preventing heat illness. According to OSHA the app has already been downloaded more than 250,000 times.

No federal heat standards

California has a “heat illness prevention regulation” that applies to all outdoor workplaces. The state also requires employers in agriculture, construction, landscaping, transportation and oil and gas extraction to take special measures when temperatures hit 95ºF or higher. Washington state also has an “outdoor heat exposure rule” that includes specific temperatures that trigger protective action.

But there are no specific federal extreme heat standards—in other words, no set temperatures at which employers are required to pull workers off the job. But under federal law, and OSHA’s general workplace safety standards, employers are required to protect workers from excessive heat and heat illness at whatever temperature that might occur. And if workers are going to be exposed to high temperatures, their employer is supposed to have a heat illness prevention program. This includes providing workers with water, rest and shade. It should also allow workers to acclimatize to the heat, and train workers to monitor for and prevent extreme heat exposure and illness.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), seven of the ten warmest years on record for the 48 contiguous U.S. states have occurred since 1998, with 2012 the warmest in the U.S.—and 2014, the hottest worldwide—thus far. So extreme heat and unseasonably high temperatures are far from new. But workers continue to succumb.

A search of OSHA’s workplace inspections and safety violations database shows 70 investigations related to heat stress since 2006. These include at least 20 fatalities. Of these 70 investigations, more than 20—including at least five fatalities—occurred in a construction-related industry. Nine involved delivery service workers, among them two U.S. Postal Service workers who died of heat exposure. Eight incidents involved landscaping workers, eight of whom died. Farm work has proved similarly dangerous for heat exposure, with all four incidents investigated involving fatalities. But workers also fell to heat doing work in the energy extraction industry, doing warehouse work, handling waste and recycling, and performing vehicle repair work. But the OSHA record of heat stress violations also includes restaurant and nursing home work.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, most of these incidents occurred in the hot and humid South and Southeast, including Texas and Louisiana. The accounts, where they are available, are heartbreaking for the utter ordinariness of the workdays they describe:

  • A worker in West Virginia who’d been dragging tree limbs to a chipper truck for three hours on a late August day was sent to sit in a truck when he said he didn’t feel well. After a little while he left the job site to walk home, a distance of four blocks. Two hours later, an emergency service worker found him unconscious by the side of the street, his body temperature at 107.4º. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead of heatstroke.
  • A man pulling weeds in a fruit tree nursery on a July day dies of hyperthermia.
  • Men found slumped over their construction work, pronounced dead of heat exhaustion.
  • A migrant farm worker who’d completed three months in a tomato packing warehouse who volunteered to stay on after the harvest ended to remove stakes and strings from 300 to 400 acres of tomato fields. After his fourth day cutting and removing strings he went to a shaded area to take a break. He was found there, some time later by coworkers, unconscious. After a local hospital recorded his 108º body temperature he was airlifted to a major hospital where he died the following day.
Ongoing low OSHA penalties

As Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) policy analyst Katie Tracy notes, under current rules, OSHA is limited in what it can fine employers for violations of any kind—including those that keep workers on the job in dangerous heat. “The median penalty for a fatality is a little over $5,000,” says Tracy. And under OSHA’s process for working with employers on fixing hazards, employers can—and regularly do—negotiate lower penalty fees than OSHA initially assessed. In fact, during the time that a company is contesting these penalties the company isn’t legally required to correct the violations for which the employers was cited. In a new report examining this practice, CPR found that the median penalty employers have paid for a fatality during the Obama Administration is $5,800. This amount, says CPR, is “less than the cost of an average funeral.”

A look at the fines companies paid in the past 10 years when workers died on the job from heat exposure reflects what CPR found. While some fines were much higher, when a number of construction workers suffered heat-related deaths, many of their employers paid fines of $7,000. When farm and landscaping workers died, those fines were often lower, in two cases: $2,000 and $2,500. OSHA is now poised to increase its penalties for the first time since 1990.

But when it comes to heat, “We want this message to get out as widely as possible,” said Michael. That includes publicizing what some employers are doing to keep workers safely cool on the job—with easy access to shade, cool drinks, wet cloths and opportunity for rest breaks. It also means making sure everyone is aware of the dangers of heat and knows what the symptoms are so they can stop before it’s too late.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on July 5, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones,Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

Heat kills California farmworkers, but the state won't always admit it

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

LauraClawsonAgricultural workers have fewer job protections than most other workers even as they do physically grueling labor for low pay. It’s a vicious circle—most of the people who work in the fields come from vulnerable groups, and the low wages and lack of protections keep them vulnerable. California’s heat is one significant source of illness and even death for farmworkers. But you might not know that from the state’s official statistics:

While the agency investigated 55 agriculture deaths between 2008 and 2014, it categorized six as heat related, according to data obtained by The Desert Sun. Of the 209 farmworker illnesses investigated in the same period, Cal/OSHA confirmed 97 as heat related.

Farmworker fatalities peaked at 15 in 2014. However, Cal/OSHA found that none of those fatalities were heat related. At least 13 of those farmworkers did not belong to a union, including a man who died in 109-degree heat after picking lemons Sept. 2 in a Mecca field. […]

Although California passed the groundbreaking Heat Illness Prevention act in 2005, Cal/OSHA confirms only 13 farmworkers have died in the decade since then from heat-related deaths. The confirmed deaths represent just a fraction of the total, according to the United Farm Workers union’s recently settled lawsuit, which pegs the number of deaths due to heat in just the six years from 2005-2011 at more than double the 10-year number claimed by Cal/OSHA.

Similarly, the state investigated 209 possibly heat-related illnesses between 2008 and 2014, but only confirmed 97 of them as officially heat-related. Even in cases where, gosh, the worker was definitely sick (or dead) after working in hot weather, and had the symptoms of heat-related illness, Cal/OSHA’s standards are sometimes just too high. And if an illness or death wasn’t officially related to heat, the employer doesn’t get cited for it. Funny how that works.

But despite the low number of illnesses and deaths officially attributed to heat, we do know that, in California, the agriculture industry has more heat-related illnesses and deaths than any other industry involving outdoor work, like construction. Which gets us back to the weak legal protections for agriculture workers.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on November 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

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