Rising temperatures can prove fatal for farm workers | FT Food Revolution
Farm workers are vital for crop picking worldwide, but global warming means the threat of hazardous heat stress is growing. As the FT’s Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu reports, the results can blight workers’ long-term health and sometimes even prove fatal. Some governments have responded but as temperatures become more extreme so do the consequences for those in the field.
Advanced machinery has revolutionised agriculture, but many tasks like the harvesting
of soft fruit are still done by hand. Manual pickers can manoeuvre and select ripe
produce more precisely, which minimises damage, while machines require a lot of
But in a warming world, farm labour has its own cost in the form of heat stress and dehydration which can
lead to fatal strokes and kidney failure.
Data from the EU’s Earth monitoring programme showed that the seven years preceding 2022 were the hottest on record.
According to one report at least 65 workers died from heat-related
illness on US farms between 2002 and 2021.
Another study concluded that American crop workers were 20 times more likely to die as a result of heat stress than other
The average number of unsafe summer working days in the US is expected to double by 2050.
The threat is worse in southern Asia and western Africa, where the impact of global
warming on human health and productivity is expected to be most extreme.
The accumulated, global cost in terms of output and working days lost due to heat stress is
estimated to reach $2,400bn by 2030, according to the International Labour Organization.
Some countries have enacted heat illness prevention legislation.
California was the first US state to bring in a raft of rules to protect
outdoor workers in 2005.
On days above 26 degrees Celsius, employers have to provide open air or ventilated shade for workers during rest periods.
When temperatures rise above 35 degrees workers must have regular breaks and reminders to drink
water and need to be monitored by a supervisor or fellow workers for signs of heat stress.
Since the rules came into force, the number of reported fatalities from environmental heat
exposure in California has fallen from 10 in 2005, to three in 2019.
A new federal standard to combat heat hazards across the US is currently in the works.
But campaigners say many farmworkers, especially immigrants, may be afraid to
raise concerns for fear of losing their jobs. They also worry that doctors are unaware of or may
fail to recognise the long-term damage from repeated exposure to heat stress,
an ongoing threat for millions of agricultural labourers around the world.
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