Author: Sara Nicholas

The month of June roared in this year with temperatures in the 90s, a sure sign of summer but also a warning sign. High heat and humidity can create dangerous conditions for farmers, livestock, and crops. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that outdoor workers, and particularly farmworkers, are 20 times more likely to die of heat-related illnesses than other workers. 

To consider what can be done to mitigate and reverse the effects of heat stress, Pasa held an online listening session last fall. During the session, two farm managers operating within different settings—one on an urban vegetable farm and orchard, and the other on a rural vegetable farm—shared what they’ve been experiencing as far as heat impacts on their work crews, and how they’re managing those. We also heard from a professional consultant who offered guidelines for preventing illness and death as a result of extreme heat. As we head into hotter days, here’s is some of the advice they offered. You can listen to the full recording of the listening session here.

Educate yourself and, if you’re a farm owner or manager, your workers.

Elena Velez, a consultant who advises farm owners, managers, and workers in California, takes a very practical approach to heat awareness and worker safety. She shares with workers medical information on heat stress and stroke, warning signs, and human physiology. She advises farmers to take basic precautions like wearing cotton clothing instead of synthetics, hydrating regularly, taking breaks based on outside temperature and conditions, and learning the signs of heat stress. The table below summarizes different levels of heat illness, from least severe to most severe. You can find more information about the signs and symptoms of heat illness here on Penn State Extension’s website (also available in Spanish).

Heat illnessSymptomsProper treatment
Heat rashRed, blotchy skin rash or areas with clusters of pimples or small blistersAffected area should be kept dry, and treat with corn starch or powder. Rest in a cool place.
Heat syncopeLightheaded, fainting, or dizzinessMove victim to a cool place; they should lie down and elevate their feet. Give the victim plenty of cool fluids.
Heat crampsPain in stomach and/or legsStop activity and drink plenty of water. Massage affected muscles.
Heat exhaustionCool, pale, clammy skin; dizziness; headache; cramps; nausea or vomiting; weakness; confusion or unconsciousnessIf conscious, give plenty of cool fluids. Remove excess clothing and apply cool compresses. Contact emergency medical services.
Heat strokeHot, dry skin; temperature of 105 degrees or higher; confusion; anger; chills; nausea; dizziness; unconsciousness, convulsions; and deliriumHeat stroke may be fatal. Immediately contact emergency medical services. Move the person to a cool place and keep their head and shoulders elevated. Remove outer clothing and cool the body (e.g., cool water, wet towels or sheets, or immersion).
Source: Penn State Extension, Heat and Illness in Agriculture

Have a plan if heat illness or stroke occurs.

For many workers, Velez notes, posting emergency information and safety steps in English and in Spanish, or any other language that workers know, may be critical. Velez also spends time with farm owners and managers to help them understand potential dangers, how to address them, and basic information such as how emergency crews can find their workers in the field. Tragically, a farmworker in the Pacific northwest last year died of heat stroke when ambulance crews couldn’t locate him.

Be willing to change practices to adjust to hotter temperatures.

Ali Ascherio, a farm manager with Weavers Way Co-op in Philadelphia, acknowledges that urban farms in particular can be oppressive with heat and humidity. Shifting habits and schedules can help. Weavers Way started a safety committee that encourages pre-hydrating for staff and volunteers, taking electrolyte tablets, and cutting field work back on hot days to half a day, with other tasks performed in the afternoon. Harvest days are cut back from 12 hour days to 10 hour days, and planting trees and adding structures for shade has helped head off heat exhaustion. 

Take advantage of the natural cooling opportunities on your farm.

Jenifer Glenister, owner of New Morning Farm—a vegetable operation in Huntington County—says she’s lucky to have plenty of trees and a cool creek that workers can stand in on hot days. She acknowledges part of the problem is a farmer mindset that “farmers make the sacrifice for all of us,” and encourages a team leader to be the point person for heat awareness. She has benefited from a farm staff person with EMS training who reminds workers every day about hydrating, staying in the shade, and taking breaks when needed. They also provide lots of electrolytes, “treating ourselves like the endurance athletes that we are,” she explained.

Unfortunately, not all farms are practicing heat safety, and farmworkers continue to be asked to work hard in extreme conditions. In four states to date—California, Oregon, Washington State and Montana—state legislatures have approved heat-related regulations that protect workers when temperatures reach specific limits, requiring breaks and shortening hours in the field. In 2021, the Biden administration asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to promulgate federal rules to protect outdoor workers from heat illnesses. Pasa’s comments to OSHA include many suggestions from our farmers and experts, including incorporating heat awareness into workforce training and apprenticeships; offering more resources for safety equipment and education; supporting more trees planted and adding more structures for shade—perhaps including solar panels that both provide shade and help reduce carbon emissions that increase annual average temperatures. 

As things heat up this summer, be aware, know the signs, be flexible, and be safe. If you have other strategies for beating the heat on your farm, feel free to share those with us at policy@pasafarming.org.

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