Reduce the risk of heat-related deaths

Photos Courtesy of Richard Wilson Unless Otherwise Noted.
Crews that work in the hot sun are susceptible to heat stress. It’s a good idea to encourage your workers to wear long sleeves and long pants, and to cover their heads.

The statistics tell only part of the story: from 1992 to 2006, a reported 68 agricultural workers in the United States died from heat- stroke—a rate nearly 20 times greater than that for all U.S. workers. From 2003 to 2006, 71 percent of all the crop workers who died from heatstroke were from Mexico or Central or South America.

These statistics, reported in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (June 20, 2008), don’t adequately convey either the human or the economic costs of heat-related deaths to fruit and vegetable growers.

In California, which has experienced numerous heat-related deaths in agriculture over the past several years, the following examples from last summer relay more of these costs.

  • A 17-year-old farm laborer from Mexico died two days after being hospitalized for heat exhaustion symptoms she exhibited while pruning grape vines in a vineyard. She had complained of dizziness and then collapsed after working more than eight hours in temperatures that topped 95 degrees. The young woman came to the United States to work so she could send money to her widowed mother. Cal/OSHA, which had cited the farm labor contractor who employed her for heat violations in the past, fined her employer $262,700 in connection with the death. Cal/OSHA inspectors said there was virtually a complete absence of shade and water where the young woman was working.
  • A 37-year-old laborer who collapsed in the heat while loading table grapes later died at a hospital. His body temperature was 108 degrees when he arrived there. The United Farm Workers Union (UFW) used this and other heat-related deaths as a rallying cry for stricter enforcement of regulations against California’s agricultural employers.
  • A 42-year-old vineyard worker who had been working during the morning and early afternoon became unresponsive while in a company car heading to the vineyard’s main office. He died from heatstroke just 15 minutes after arriving at the hospital. His body temperature had reached 108 degrees.
Photo Courtesy of Barbara Mulhern.
It’s critical to provide sufficient drinking water for crews that work outdoors in the heat.

Water is critical

Last year alone, Cal/OSHA inspectors issued more than $3.9 million in fines against California employers in various industries for violations of its heat-related regulations. However, California is by no means the only state in which heat-related illnesses and deaths can and do occur. From 1992 to 2006, North Carolina ranked second and Florida third in reported agricultural heat-related deaths. Heatstroke has also resulted in deaths in states as far north as Minnesota.

“The most important thing for employers to remember first and foremost is to tell their workers to keep themselves hydrated,” says Rick Wilson, regulatory compliance/safety director at Thomas Produce Co. in Boca Raton, Fla. “Make sure they take adequate breaks to drink water. We make water available in the back of trucks and in porta potties.”

Thomas Produce, Wilson adds, also at times provides Gatorade, which contains electrolytes, during unusually hot weather in the late spring. “Unfortunately, there are some employers who forget how important it is to have water available at all times right where the workers are located,” he adds.

Covering your skin as much as possible when working in the hot sun is one good way to reduce your risk of heat stress.

Just providing your crews with water to drink is not enough. The fiancé of the 17-year-old who died in California said that workers there were only given one water break during eight hours of working in the heat. He also said that the water was a 10-minute walk away—too far for a worker to keep up with the crew and avoid getting scolded.

(Note: Crew members who are paid by the piece rate are especially going to be hesitant to take breaks to drink water unless it is strictly enforced.)

In addition to drinking water, it’s important to have a location where workers can take breaks in the shade (such as an air-conditioned truck or a canopy). Equally important is training both your crew members and your supervisors in recognizing the potential signs of heat stress, knowing how to reduce their risk, and properly responding when a worker exhibits heat-related symptoms.

“We train our supervisors to be on the lookout for profuse sweating, flushing in the face and slurring of the speech. We also encourage our workers to wear long-sleeved shirts and some type of a hat,” Wilson says.

Heat Stress Checklist for Growers

Editor’s note: If you are located in California, you must comply with strict heat-related regulations. For more information, including training materials in both English and Spanish, visit www.dir.ca.gov/DOSH/HeatIllnessInfo.html.

  • Implement a formal heat illness prevention program. Assign responsibility for training and other elements. Ensure that all crew leaders and other supervisors know what is in your program. Hold them accountable for compliance.
  • Train all crew leaders/supervisors and other employees how to reduce their risk of heat stress and how to properly respond if they suspect a heat-related illness. Make sure your supervisors know the location of the nearest hospital and that all employees have been trained in calling 911 and other emergency phone numbers. Always train in a language and manner your employees will understand and document in writing attendance at all training sessions.
  • Make use of the many good, free Web-based materials that are available. One resource is the National Ag Safety Database. Visit www.cdc.gov/nasd and search for “heat stress.”
  • Be sure your workers are acclimatized to working in the heat. If possible, schedule the most strenuous tasks during the coolest times of the day.
  • Supply a sufficient amount of drinking water close to all work sites. Schedule regular short breaks and train your workers to drink small amounts of water at regular intervals during the day.
  • Become familiar with the National Weather Service’s Heat Index chart (visit www.weather.gov/on/heat/index.shtml). Know that the heat index (how hot it really feels) combines both the air temperature and the relative humidity, so conditions can be dangerous even if the temperature isn’t that high.
  • Strongly encourage your workers to dress appropriately for the heat. It’s best to wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and a hat that protects both the face and the neck. Loosely fitting, light-colored cotton clothing is a good choice. Workers should also use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater to protect themselves from the potentially harmful rays of the sun.
  • Provide the coolest possible personal protective equipment (PPE) that meets the product label’s requirements.
  • Know that the symptoms of heat exhaustion and some pesticide poisonings are similar, but their treatments are different. Seek prompt emergency medical assistance in these situations.
 

Estimated Heat-Related Deaths Among Crop Workers in the U.S., 1992-2006

Note: The source of this chart notes that heat-related deaths were likely underreported in part because heatstroke was not recognized at the time of death or was not indicated as a contributing factor on the worker’s death certificate.

  No. of Deaths Percent of Total Deaths
Total 68 100%
Crop Production 52 76%
Vegetable and Melon Farming 15 22%
Fruit and Tree Nut Farming 11 16%
(Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 20, 2008)

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based agricultural/horticultural freelance writer and a longtime contributor to Growing.