UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety Spotlights Harsh Truths of Health Issues Among Farmworkers

(Hector Amezcua, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, UC Davis)

By Diana Zhu

DAVIS – The UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety held their monthly seminar on Monday, discussing “Heat Stress Risks and Outcomes Among California Farmworkers.”

In complacency with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the seminar presentation was held over a Zoom conference meeting.

Department of Public Health Sciences and the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety Director Heather Riden introduced the guests to the host, Marc Schenker, M.D., MPH.

Schenker is a distinguished professor of Public Health Sciences and Medicine at UC Davis and founding director of the Center of Occupational and Environmental Health, the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety and the Migration and Health Research Center.

“This is going to be a report on several years of work that we’ve been doing on heat stress and farmworkers,” Schenker said.

He continued to outline the following key points in his presentation: common heat-related illnesses (HRI), risk factors for occupational heat stress, occupational heat stress among agricultural workers, current research on occupational stress and prevention.

Schenker spoke on the range of severity in heat-related illnesses, hot-spots of HRI deaths in California, heatwave mortality, increase in heat-related deaths in the United States and how most of these incidents and deaths were preventable.

Schenker brought up the White House Report on Climate Change and Human Health in April 2016, saying, “It’s a very comprehensive report. What struck me was there’s no mention of occupational health hazards… there was less than two paragraphs about workers and their exposure to excess heat and health impacts from that. Unfortunately, this is the reality that occurs, that the occupational hazard safety, even though for the greater good, gets ignored or shortchanged.”

Schenker continued to say that California has been the leader in occupational heat regulations, as there have been no existing standards on the federal level.

Schenker pointed out conditions for farmworkers could range from 80 to 116 degrees Fahrenheit, averaging at 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

He stated that the average core body temperature is 102 degrees Fahrenheit and the human body goes into critical condition when reaching temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Schenker brought up the case of a 17-year-old pregnant immigrant from Mexico who was working but felt unwell and was denied proper care.

She died shortly after, and this was an entirely preventable case. This story embodies many of the core issues in heat-related casualties, Schenker said.

Those in the military have structures to keep them well, and athletes are trained and monitored, whereas even with available water and shaded breaks, farmworkers are still the most at risk for HRI deaths due to a number of reasons.

Schenker introduced his investigation, California Heat Illness Prevention Study (CHIPS), which studies the hydration, work, clothing, core body temperature and questionnaire data received from 30 different farms across California.

Among the findings were cultural and societal structural beliefs, such as men knowing to drink water but preferring to drink energy drinks and sweet drinks, reporting that they did not want to look weak or slow down other workers.

Women tended to wear excess clothing to avoid unwanted attention from men, but at the risk of overheating.

Supervisors also discouraged workers to take breaks, and they had a lack of training to recognize early HRI symptoms.

Schenker said the second phase of CHIPS includes an economic analysis of the association between production and high heat (aimed at employers), development of apps to assist supervisors with HRI prevention for both workforce employees and individuals, incorporation of CHIPS findings into evidence-based training and incentives for Latinx farmworkers and video education.

“HRI remains a risk of illness and death, especially for the most vulnerable outdoor workers. Climate change factors will increase risks in the future and risk factors for HRI are multifactorial and require diverse approaches addressing heat gain and cooling,” said Schenker. “Metabolic heat gain is a significant risk factor for HRI and approaches should include education, engineering and enforcement efforts, and addressing cultural beliefs and perceptions.”

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