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‘Heat is a killer’: Hundreds of thousands of farmworkers are left vulnerable

A sweltering heatwave blanketed Los Angeles and much of the West in recent weeks. When many of us can seek refuge indoors, often in the comfort of air conditioning, those who work outside must continue pushing through the high temperatures. 

“We need to recognize heat is a killer and the number one health hazard to farmworkers now,” says Dr. Marc Schenker, founding director of the UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety.  

“When I started doing this a few decades ago, everything was about pesticides. Heat wasn’t even on the radar. Now that’s completely reversed,” explains Schenke, a physician who has worked in agriculture for decades.

Every year, more than 600 people die from extreme heat in the United States. For farmworkers, that can often be needless. “Rest, water, shade are not high-tech medicine. It’s basic to reduce heat gain and protect workers, that’s part of the tragedy,” says Schenker. 

The number one risk factor is workload. Metabolic heat — the heat generated by doing physical work — accounts for 40 to 50% of the body’s heat, according to Schenker. To prevent this from rising too much, workers must reduce the amount of work with rest time in the shade or even eliminate work entirely if it's too hot, says Schenker. 

However, given the notoriously tough working conditions on some farms, that’s not an option. Schenker believes heat is the “perfect storm.”

“As you have increasing temperatures, you have ripening of the crops with more need to do work, not less. And you can't just stop in from the farmer's perspective and say, ‘Well, we'll come back tomorrow when the weather isn't so hot.’” Those who are the most vulnerable and impacted are immigrants and non-English speakers. 

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