It’s sweltering in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest this week, and farmworkers are among the most vulnerable.
Ángeles Cárdenas and her small crew ended their work day earlier than usual on Wednesday — as they likely will for the rest of the week. There were few trees and little shade in the Nampa cornfield where they worked until 2:30 p.m. The National Weather Service recorded a high of 104 degrees in Nampa by noon.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want to do this work,” Cárdenas told the Idaho Statesman over the phone Wednesday.
Experts and advocates are calling for caution — and change — as the Northwest rolls through a several-day stretch of extreme heat that has had lethal consequences in the region. Hundreds of deaths in the U.S. and Canada have been linked to the heat wave, especially among people without air conditioning in their homes or workplaces.
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Manual laborers working outside are particularly at risk. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warns that “dozens of workers die every year due to working in the heat, and thousands become ill.” The Oregonian reported the heat-related death of at least one farmworker this week.
“These are extreme temperatures; they are outside of the norm,” said Elizabeth Strater, from United Farm Workers. “I know that this is a historic heat wave, but I don’t think that it’s going to be in the history books. This is going to happen more and more. And right on the heels of heat like this is going to come fires and air that is toxic.”
Farmworker advocacy organizations such as UFW say extreme heat in areas where that’s unusual — many places in Oregon, Washington state and North Idaho, for instance — is one of the reasons why there need to be stronger federal standards protecting workers from the heat. Strater said many migrate through different states for work, but employers in traditionally cooler places might not understand the amplified risks to workers once temperatures soar past 100 degrees.
“The lack of federal standards puts workers in every state at risk,” Strater said. “You can’t educate and empower workers about what their rights are. We need a federal standard that acknowledges the real, bare basics needed to save the lives of the men, women and children working in our food supply chain.”
What makes farmworkers vulnerable to heat-related illness and death?
Hot summers are always dangerous, but unusually extreme weather is more perilous and deadly.
According to David Paul, an exercise physiologist at the University of Idaho, people’s bodies have strategies to adjust to the heat, but they can take weeks. That’s part of the reason OSHA says most work-related heat deaths occur in the first few days of working in very high temps.
Even if it’s been hot for a while, OSHA recommends that new workers and those returning from a prolonged absence should begin with 20% of the workload on the first day.
And the temperature is not the only consideration. Sunlight can add at least 15 degrees to how hot it feels, according to a National Weather Service website. Dry soil is also very reflective, geologist David Wilkins, of Boise State University, told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview.
“In between the rows (that are irrigated), it’s pretty dry,” Wilkins said. “(Farmworkers) are going to be directly receiving the sunlight, bouncing off the surface.”
The ground itself is also very hot, since the dry soil is a poor transporter of heat — just like sand at a beach is scorching, but an inch or so underneath, it’s cool.
Since Southern Idaho is so far west in the Mountain time zone, and there’s also daylight saving time in the summer, the Boise sun is peaking just before 2 p.m. this week. But it takes some time for sunlight to heat the area, which is why the temperature was actually hottest around 4:30 p.m. this week, according to Wilkins.
That’s also the reason that it’s generally coolest a little while after sunrise, when the earth has had a chance to cool down overnight. This heating is cumulative, too. If it’s hot one day and it doesn’t cool enough at night, the next day will generally only be warmer.
Smoke, whether it’s from wildfires or fireworks, also can change the nighttime-daytime temperature shift. Smoke from California wildfires might blow into Idaho the next 36 hours.
“The temperatures at night don’t tend to go down as much if you have a valley full of smoke,” said Wilkins.
Since particles in the air absorb and scatter sunlight, more smoke could also mean lower daytime temperatures. But the nighttime will be hotter.
How to stay safe while working in the heat
The Community Council of Idaho and other advocacy groups have been trying to distribute water to farmworker families, and the council even raffled off coolers at a Sunday event. Treasure Valley cities such as Boise and Nampa have set up cooling centers for people, but most are far from agricultural areas where farmworkers are laboring.
Luke Ankeny, the executive director of the Marsing Agricultural Labor Sponsoring Committee, said employers are trying to stock up on ice, gatorade and bottled water to supply their workers — but sometimes they face obstacles. Ankeny said he and his staff struggled to get enough supplies this week, as many stores they visited were either sold out or implementing limits on the items.
The farmers Ankeny sends work crews to are “super understanding” about the risks of the heat and willing to make adjustments. But some contract jobs are already taking longer than usual because of a persistent shortage of workers that existed even before the heat wave or the pandemic.
“We know we’re going to be behind because of the heat,” Ankeny said. “We’re already shorthanded, and with the heat, having to stop early. It’s just hot, you can’t work as hard. We’ll definitely be behind.”
Since humans regulate their internal temperature by sweating, it’s important to stay hydrated, and the best way to do that is simply drink water regularly.
“If you are drinking water before you exercise, you will pee a certain amount out. But if you start exercising and drink water, you retain the water better,” said Paul. OSHA recommends a lot of water — “about one cup every 15 minutes.”
Caffeine and alcohol would cause people to urinate more, which contributes to dehydration, said Paul.
Any stimulants, including allergy medication, can increase heart rates and dehydrate people as well, said St. Luke’s Dr. Martha Taylor in a phone interview. This makes it easier to get heat illnesses.
To protect from the sun, OSHA recommends wearing “loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants.” UV damage is additive over your lifetime, Taylor said.
“So anytime you’re able to block some of that UV ... that would be tremendous,” Taylor said. “And again, any bit counts.”
The best protection, of course, is to avoid the outside heat if at all possible.
“If you’re doing any kind of physical labor, whether you’re in the shade or in the sunlight, it’s going to be pretty brutal,” Wilkins said.
There’s heightened concern for older farmworkers. Ankeny said the majority of people working on their crews are older than 50, and even in their 60s, 70s and 80s — which is not uncommon in agricultural labor. Taylor said that among vulnerable populations, the most susceptible to heat exhaustion are “the elderly, especially with preexisting conditions.”
“The inability for those elderly patients to have better control over their blood pressure, heart rate and ability to sweat (is) coupled with the fact that a higher number of those elderly patients will be on those medications that will predispose you to those exertional heat illnesses,” Taylor said. “Couple those together, that’s just a recipe for disaster, especially in temperatures over 100 degrees.”