Farmworkers Cannot Wait for OSHA to Adequately Protect Them From Heat. The Fair Food Program Provides a Solution - Modern Farmer

Farmworkers Cannot Wait for OSHA to Adequately Protect Them From Heat. The Fair Food Program Provides a Solution

Extreme heat is one of the most dangerous factors for farmworkers during the hot summer months. We need to act now to protect these workers and our food supply.

Photography by F Armstrong Photography via Shutterstock

In the wake of the Northern hemisphere’s hottest summer on record, Cruz Salucio, a longtime farmworker and current educator with the Fair Food Program, recalled the painful effects of heat stress:

I remember the heat of the sun and the intense exhaustion during my first years in the tomato and watermelon fields,” he recalls. Over more than a decade, Salucio harvested watermelon and tomatoes across Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Maryland, working up to 12 hours each day. “Struggling with dehydration, I would get hit with terrible cramps in my feet, my legs, my fingers. They would get hard as rocks, and I could not walk, carry my bucket or lift a watermelon well. But I had to just endure and keep working. I remember, in my first weeks as a young farmworker in the tomato fields, one supervisor saw me struggling with a foot cramp and just said, “Well, you’ll just have to drag it.” 

Salucio is one of many farmworkers who struggled with the wide-reaching effects of heat stress. And now, farmworkers are bracing for an even hotter future

Read more: Meet Enrique Balcazar and the farmworker collective organizing for Milk with Dignity.

Heat is the most deadly extreme weather condition in the US. Six hundred people die from heat each year. US.m farmworkers are a shocking 35 times more likely to die from heat than other workers. Since 1992, more than 1,000 farmworkers have died and at least 100,000 have been injured from heat. Between 40 percent and 84 percent of agricultural workers experience heat-related illness at work. 

Extreme heat and humidity impede the body’s ability to cool down, setting off catastrophic and irreversible organ failure, heart attack or kidney failure. Those who work outdoors without adequate hydration can develop chronic kidney disease, among other health issues.

Farmworkers’ growing vulnerability to heat stress cannot be blamed on climate alone. There are social and political causes, stemming from the way agricultural work is performed, organized and regulated. These include: the intensity and length of the working day; piece-rate payment systems; lack of consistent access to clean drinking water, shade and bathrooms; a poor work safety climate; and excessive clothing. 

As such, immediate actions must be taken to protect workers from needless suffering and death. 

A worker-to-worker education session on an FFP Participating Farm on the topic of the heat standards. Photography via Fair Food Program.

The federal government has begun to address the crisis, but the OSHA rule-making process is slow. President Biden ordered OSHA to develop a heat standard in 2021. In April 2024, a draft was discussed, but stakeholder and public feedback still must be sought before the rule can be finalized. This could very well drag on, since even mitigating preventable heat-related illnesses and deaths has become politicized.

In the meantime, heat stress protections fall under OSHA’s general duty clause, which ensures the workplace is “free from hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm,” including extreme heat. Additionally, OSHA implemented a spot inspection program for workplaces with significant heat hazards, and it has increased efforts to inspect farms hiring H2A guest workers. 

However, these small protections aren’t enough. 

Concerningly, OSHA cannot enforce its standards on farms with 10 or fewer employees, due to a 1976 appropriations rider exempting them from red tape. Only a small handful of states, which can run their own OSHA plans, have standards for heat exposure

Learn more: Find out the responsibilities of employers under OSHA when it comes to worker heat protection.

Farmworkers cannot wait years for the right to safe working conditions. Action must be taken by civil society and the private sector. The Fair Food Program (FFP), a farmworker-led, market-based solution to agricultural workplace injustices—recently cited as an emerging “gold standard” in social responsibility in a 10-year, longitudinal study of the leading certification programs—provides a solution. 

The FFP has developed comprehensive standards and protocols for heat stress prevention and response, protections the Washington Post called “America’s strongest workplace heat rules” earlier this year. Under the plan, workers receive mandatory cool-down rest breaks every two hours; are provided unrestricted access to clean water with electrolytes and shade; are monitored more frequently for heat stress, especially during the acclimatization period to heat; are trained on the signs of heat illness; and if showing signs of heat stress, they can stop working—without fear of repercussions—if they feel unwell.

Farm workers during a 2023 march for the FFP. Photography via Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Now implemented in 10 states, the FFP has begun expanding to communities in South Africa and Chile. The number of US states participating is also set to double this summer, with the USDA’s recognition of the program

The Fair Food Program works with the Fair Food Standards Council, an independent third party that audits participating farms for compliance with a suite of labor justice standards developed by farmworkers themselves and runs a 24/7 worker complaint hotline. In the 12 years since its launch, the FFP has successfully addressed some of the most intractable labor justice problems in agriculture, such as gender-based violence and forced labor, which have been all but eradicated from FFP farms. 

Take Action: Discover how you can support the Fair Food Program's mission of safe and fair working conditions for farmworkers.

Although more than a dozen major food companies—including such well-known brands as Walmart, McDonald’s and Whole Foods—currently participate in the program, more must join to expand the program’s benefits. The workers behind the program remain undaunted in their determination to expand its life-saving protections. In the words of one anonymous worker, speaking to a Fair Food Standards Council auditor in 2018: 

“Before, I would be working under the sun, working hard, and I would want to stop for water. The boss would stop me, and I would say, I need water. He would say, there’s the ditch over there, it’s got some water. There were no water bottles. We were exhausted, we needed water. There were no toilets. Before, if you spoke out, you would be fired…  But now that we are united, we have strength. We are taking steps forward, and we cannot go back. We are building a road forward, and we will never go back.”  


Kathleen Sexsmith is an assistant professor of rural sociology at the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. Greg Asbed is the co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

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