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Creating a heat standard for vulnerable farmworkers could take years


The searing temperatures that have affected so many areas this summer, including the Midwest, are expected to come down in the next few weeks. That will be a relief to farmworkers who are especially vulnerable and more likely to die from the heat. The federal government is trying to create a heat standard for workers, but the process could take years. Harvest Public Media's Eva Tesfaye reports.

EVA TESFAYE, BYLINE: Waverly, Mo. is called the apple capital of Missouri. The small town is surrounded by fruit orchards. And on a recent, particularly hot summer evening, a bus drops off workers at their housing.


TESFAYE: Nicolas Romero Dominguez looks tired after picking apples all day. He says the heat was strong.

ROMERO DOMINGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

TESFAYE: Dominguez says you can feel the heat. There are times when you say, OK, I'm going to sit down for a while, but it does feel rough on you. The central United States has seen some of the largest increases in humid heat since 1950. And humidity can intensify the health risks of extreme heat by reducing the body's ability to cool itself through sweat. After one farm worker died in Nebraska in 2018 while detasseling corn, more workers are paying attention to the heat. Public health professor Athena Ramos at the University of Nebraska Medical Center says there's still less of a focus by employers on the health of these workers.

ATHENA RAMOS: I've had numerous interactions with farmworkers over the years who tell me about things that might have happened in the field, and nobody came.

TESFAYE: She says it's important that supervisors know how to protect workers in the face of extreme heat. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, does inspect heat issues and allows employees to submit complaints. But many immigrant workers don't feel comfortable doing so. Matthew Thurlby, the area director for OSHA in Omaha, says, under the general duty clause, employers have a responsibility to protect employees from the heat.

MATTHEW THURLBY: Our catchphrase that we use, which is very logical for heat protection, is water, rest and shade.

TESFAYE: A handful of states do have heat protections, but there is currently no federal standard on workers being exposed to heat. OSHA is in the process of developing one, yet there is no clear timeline, and officials would not comment on the process.

JORDAN BARAB: OSHA is uniquely slow.

TESFAYE: That's Jordan Barab, the former deputy assistant secretary for OSHA. He says the rule-making process is long because it takes a huge amount of analysis. He also says OSHA is a small agency with a small budget, which saw cuts during the Trump administration.

BARAB: OSHA doesn't have enough inspectors anyway, nor do the states. Farmworkers are particularly hard 'cause, for one thing, OSHA is not allowed to go on any farms with fewer than 10 employees. So really small farms OSHA can't even step foot on.

TESFAYE: Still, farmworker groups and advocacy organizations say federal regulations are needed. Mayra Reiter is with Farmworker Justice, a national nonprofit dedicated to empowering farmworkers. She says, in most of the Midwest, there is no specific requirement to provide shade or rest breaks.

MAYRA REITER: So from the employer's standpoint, they feel like they're not doing anything wrong.

TESFAYE: Many of the orchard workers in central Missouri say their employers do provide the breaks and water they need. But the work is still difficult, and pay is the issue. Often, workers are paid by how much they pick. So Javier Salinas says, if he took breaks because of the heat, he'd lose money.

JAVIER SALINAS: (Speaking Spanish).

TESFAYE: He says, the truth is that if you come to make money, you have to keep working. Otherwise, how are you going to do it? While the push for federal heat protections is slow, workers will count on sunscreen and hats and hope that temperatures lower as apple-picking season continues into the fall.

For NPR News, I'm Eva Tesfaye in Kansas City.

SUMMERS: Monica Cordero of Investigate Midwest contributed to this story, a collaboration between Harvest Public Media, Investigate Midwest and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eva Tesfaye, Harvest Public Media