Florida coalition protects farm workers from rising temperatures amid climate change

Florida coalition protects farm workers from rising temperatures amid climate change

Florida’s farmworkers face increasing heat-related health risks as temperatures rise due to climate change, and a local organization is working to bolster their protections.

The Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers, through its Fair Food Program, has added enforceable standards for farms meant to keep workers safe during periods of high heat.

The Fair Food Program is an agreement between the CIW and participating growers and buyers to provide workers with better wages and working conditions.

The new plan intends to keep farm workers safe from heat-related illnesses with mandatory breaks every two hours, increased monitoring of heat-stress prevention measures, education and training, and responding to heat-stress symptoms.

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Cruz Salucio, a CIW staffer who spoke through his colleague and interpreter Marley Monacello, said the organization has always prioritized listening and responding to workers in the field.

“The harsh reality is temperatures are rising and workers feel that and know it is happening,” Salucio said. “Putting this tool in the hands of workers’ ability to protect one’s own health is incredibly important in this moment.”

In August, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a new study reporting that outdoor workers in Florida stand to lose $8.4 billion annually by midcentury. The report also says Florida and the U.S. lack mandatory standards to keep workers safe as extreme heat days in the nation are set to quadruple.

“Without additional protections, the risks to workers will only grow in the decades ahead as climate change worsens, leaving the roughly 32 million outdoor workers in the United States to face a brutal choice: their health or their jobs,” the report says.

Florida temperatures grow more extreme once it gets to April and workers feel that heat, Salucio said.

“It’s not just the heat, but a combination of heat and humidity that raises the heat index,” he said. “It might be 93 degrees out, but it could feel like it’s 103, 105 or 110 degrees.”

The CIW’s new rules outline parts of the year. From May 1 – Oct. 31, the mandatory breaks every two hours should last at least 10 minutes. During that same time of year, crew leaders and staff need to review the heat stress prevention measures while keeping an eye on workers for any symptoms of heat stress.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website says workers exposed to extreme heat or working in hot environments may risk heat stress, which can result in heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps or heat rashes. 

“Prevention of heat stress in workers is important,” the website says. “Employers should provide training to workers so they understand what heat stress is, how it affects their health and safety, and how it can be prevented.”

Year-round, education and training initiatives will ensure employers and supervisors know the rules and can identify symptoms and how to respond to them.

More:How Florida left farmworkers out of its COVID-19 pandemic response

More:Nikki Fried to Gov. DeSantis: Give Florida farmworkers, all teachers COVID-19 vaccines now

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists 92 heat-related fatalities across the country from January 2016 to September 2020, though the agency has no enforceable federal standards to ensure employers appropriately respond to signs of heat stress.

In August, however, Senate lawmakers Alex Padilla (D – Calif.) and Sherrod Brown (D – Ohio) introduced a bill to establish worker protections.

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“With the increasing prevalence of extreme weather conditions as well as employers who neglect to invest in their workplaces, the risk this danger poses for our workers, communities, and the economy is at a pressure point,” the senators wrote in an August letter to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director at the United Farmworkers Foundations, said in a news release that access to water, shade, training and breaks is now a matter of life and death amid record-breaking temperatures.

“Unfortunately, without federal heat standards, thousands of farm workers are vulnerable to heat illness and death,” she said.

But regulations need proper implementation, Salucio said.

“Many regulations are implemented without a plan for enforcement,” he said. “Meanwhile, what we’re able to do as workers creating the Fair Food Program is have a system that might have a fairly brief, to-the-point booklet that’s a few dozen pages, but each of those pages is enforced and made real. They are tangible and real for workers on a day to day basis.”

In a recent webinar discussing health and safety challenges facing farmworkers in Florida and the Southeast, Dr. Roxana Chicas, assistant professor at the Nell Woodruff-Hodgson School of Nursing at Emory University, said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how essential farmworkers are to society.

“As a society, what we can do is support them through big structural changes like passing legislation that has federal heat protections standards in place and advocate for immigration reform for farmworkers so they have legal status.”

More:Varying annual rainfall could affect Florida ranchers

More:Task force forms to voice concerns over Army Corps coastal resiliency study

On top of the physical health effects of heat stress, Chicas said there are healthcare access issues.

“Many workers don’t have health insurance nor can they pay out of pocket for healthcare,” she said.

For its part, CIW’s series of protections against heat-related illnesses in farmworkers is responding to urgent needs, Salucio, said.

“In so many other industries, especially outdoor ones like construction, there often are breaks for everyone you can rely on,” he said. “This program is advancing the agriculture industry and moving things forward to a safer working environment.”

Wolf needs to score bigger climate victories, activists say

Gov. Tom Wolf has notched perhaps his biggest victory in his strategy to fight climate change in Pennsylvania, but climate-change activists still see his record as full of contradictions and suggest he has enough time left in office to score farther-reaching accomplishments.

The Democratic governor won approval this week from a regulatory board for Pennsylvania to make Pennsylvania the first major fossil-fuel state to impose carbon pricing on power plants, the state’s biggest source of carbon dioxide.

The plan likely will face a legal challenge — it faced strong opposition from coal and natural gas interests, labor unions and business associations — and its overall effect on greenhouse gas emissions remains to be seen.

It comes after Wolf’s administration has lost opportunities to advance the cause of climate action, environmental advocates say.

For instance, Wolf’s administration empowered the methane-emitting natural gas industry by permitting the construction of pipelines, including the heavily fined natural-gas liquid-carrying Mariner East pipelines, they say.

It has permitted gas-fired power plants, including two large plants whose permits are being challenged by environmental groups as too lax on emissions limits, while Wolf agreed to extend millions of dollars in tax breaks to turn natural gas into fertilizer and industrial chemicals.

Wolf’s “willingness to promote fracking infrastructure and plastics … will be challenging to the governor’s long-term environmental legacy because I think science will show us in a few years just how detrimental those anti-environmental practices truly are,” said David Masur, executive director of Philadelphia-based PennEnvironment.

Meanwhile, Wolf could have done more to subsidize the buildout of electric-vehicle infrastructure, and backed away from chances to target vehicle emissions, Pennsylvania’s second-biggest source of carbon dioxide, some say.

Some acknowledge that Wolf has had little room to maneuver.

His administration must follow permitting laws, and Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature is protective of hometown natural gas, oil and coal industries in the fossil fuel-rich state.

That has limited his options to executive actions.

At the end of his first term, his administration began enforcing tougher air pollution standards on equipment in new or updated well sites and along pipeline networks in Pennsylvania’s vast natural gas industry.

He kicked off his second term by committing his administration to putting Pennsylvania on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in line with 2015′s landmark Paris climate agreement.

The administration has worked hard on that, orienting state agencies toward climate-friendly practices and helping cities and counties to do the same while educating the public about how climate change affects them, Wolf’s environmental protection secretary, Patrick McDonnell, said.

“People are seeing it and are hungry for more information on how they can engage and how they can help,” McDonnell, said. “I think the programs we’re talking about are things that help businesses, residents, others take advantage of all the things we’re learning to really push things forward.”

While Wolf has just 16 months left in office, there are perhaps bigger steps his administration can take, say environmental advocates.

One is to enact a regulation that cracks down on emissions from pre-existing equipment used across Pennsylvania’s natural gas fields and pipeline networks.

It is hung up, at least in part, on the question of whether to apply it to smaller-producing wells.

Joe Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, said it must cover those wells to be effective in capturing methane, a greenhouse gas that researchers say is far more potent than carbon dioxide.

A strong methane rule will be the most concrete way of reducing greenhouse gases, Minott said.

“His climate change legacy is frankly on the line,” Minott said. The carbon-pricing program is a “good start, but it’s not enough.”

Masur said the Wolf administration must finalize a regulation to require automakers to offer electric cars for sale in Pennsylvania as a way to cut emissions.

That, said Masur, could be the “crown jewel of the governor’s environmental legacy.”

The effectiveness of the carbon-pricing program may depend on where emissions caps are set and whether money from the emissions credits is wisely spent on clean energy and energy efficiency programs.

Of great importance is ensuring that money equitably helps poor and minority communities that tend to be more exposed to pollution, said Mark Szybist, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“There are a lot of different ways that could go and how it goes could determine how much of an impact it has on climate change and on equity,” Szybist said.

That, he said, “will determine Wolf’s legacy on the climate.”

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