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California farm workers face growing health risks as heat keeps rising

For workers whose jobs depend on outdoor work, a few degrees can mean the difference between life and death.

Farmworkers work at a bell pepper farm in California’s Coachella Valley, one of the largest agricultural regions in the nation.
Farmworkers work at a bell pepper farm in California’s Coachella Valley, one of the largest agricultural regions in the nation.
Heidi de Marco / KHN

COACHELLA, Calif. — Leoncio Antonio Trejo Galdamez, 58, died in his son’s arms on June 29 after spending the day laying irrigation pipes in California’s Coachella Valley.

News of his death reverberated through the largely Latino community near the Mexico and Arizona borders — another casualty in a dangerous business.

“Farmworkers are at the front lines of climate change, and, in some instances, we’re seeing a perfect storm battering our workers: COVID-19, wildfire smoke and heat,” said Leydy Rangel, a spokesperson for the United Farm Workers Foundation.

For workers like Trejo Galdamez, whose jobs depend on outdoor work, a few degrees can mean the difference between life and death. Farm workers here wear long shirts, thick jeans, heavy boots and wide-brimmed hats to guard against the heat. Even so, ambulances are frequently called to the fields, and heat-related illness appears to be increasing in the area.

“The heat feels awful,” said Jaime Isidoro, 36. “You start to work, you start to sweat, and the shirt underneath gets drenched.”

Born in Puebla, Mexico, Isidoro has been picking crops for two decades in the Coachella Valley. The region has one of the country’s longest growing seasons, providing most of America’s winter vegetables. It’s also home to hundreds of date farms, which thrive in the hot, dry climate.

In the Coachella Valley, heat is a given.

“A few years ago, my head started hurting,” Isidoro said. “I started to get chills. I went to the clinic, and they gave me a couple of shots. They told me it was a heatstroke. You don’t know the symptoms. I didn’t know it was that until I had it.”

Jaime Isidoro plants fruit trees in his backyard during his time off and says he has noticed the summers getting hotter every year. “This is the first time this guava tree bore fruit,” he says. “I was expecting a good crop, but the heat is too high, and it’s burning the fruit.”
Jaime Isidoro plants fruit trees in his backyard during his time off and says he has noticed the summers getting hotter every year. “This is the first time this guava tree bore fruit,” he says. “I was expecting a good crop, but the heat is too high, and it’s burning the fruit.” | Heidi de Marco / KHN
Heidi de Marco / KHN

And temperatures are getting more extreme.

On Aug. 4, three of the desert communities in this region of California surpassed their daily recorded highs, hitting 122 degrees in Palm Springs and in Thermal and 120 in Indio. Thermal set a record for its hottest August temperature ever at 121 degrees. California registered its hottest June and July.

Heat is the leading weather-related cause of death in the United States. Heat stress killed 815 workers nationwide and seriously injured more than 70,000 workers from 1992 through 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In California, the number of heat-related emergency room visits rose by 35% from 2005 to 2015, the latest year for which data were readily available, with disproportionate increases in Black, Latino and Asian American communities.

Medical workers in the Coachella Valley say they’ve treated a rising number of people for heat exhaustion or heatstroke in recent years. In 2018, California saw 6,152 emergency room visits due to heat illness. Riverside County, which includes Coachella, Indio and Palm Springs, has one of the highest rates of heat-related emergency hospitals visits in the state.

“If we start seeing above 120 degrees in any regular capacity, we’re really in uncharted territory. The human body is not designed to exist in that kind of heat,” said Dr. Andrew Kassinove, an emergency department physician and chief of staff at JFK Memorial Hospital in Indio.

The hospital regularly treats people who work outside for heat exhaustion, characterized by nausea, lightheadedness, fatigue, muscle cramping and dizziness. Less frequently, they see heatstroke, a more dangerous condition whose symptoms include headache, confusion, vomiting, rapid heart rate, fainting and a failure to sweat.

JFK Memorial has treated 129 heat-related cases already this year, compared with 85 in all of 2020 and 75 in 2019.

California has some of the strictest worker protections for heat exhaustion. A standard adopted by occupational safety officials in 2006 was the first in the country to apply to all outdoor jobs, mandating that companies provide workers with adequate shade, downtime and water. After a historic heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest this June, Oregon and Washington adopted similar protections. Some members of Congress have introduced a similar bill and want the Labor Department to establish federal standards.

But workers’ rights groups say the rules aren’t always enforced. And farm workers, who are desperate for the money and often get paid per piece during harvests, often overlook their own safety, they say.

“Farm workers are less likely to file complaints,” said the UFW’s Rangel. With no federal assistance during the pandemic, “They had to keep showing up to work if they wanted to feed their family.”

Latinos, who represent the majority of California farm workers, as a group are more likely to have conditions that can be exacerbated by the heat, like high blood pressure and kidney disease.

Isidoro, who said he’s looking for other jobs, often sees fellow workers struggling in the fields. If they feel faint, they can sit in the shade or jump in a nearby truck for air conditioning — or call 911 if symptoms persist. But it’s a point of pride not to show the heat is getting to you, he said — and calls to slow down are often met with snickers.

Jaime Isidoro has been working California farm fields since he migrated from Puebla, Mexico, in 2000. Isidoro says most farm workers wear a thin shirt underneath their clothes to combat the heat. “You start to work, you start to sweat, and the shirt underneath gets drenched, and you kind of feel refreshed when you’re bathed in sweat.”
Jaime Isidoro has been working California farm fields since he migrated from Puebla, Mexico, in 2000. Isidoro says most farm workers wear a thin shirt underneath their clothes to combat the heat. “You start to work, you start to sweat, and the shirt underneath gets drenched, and you kind of feel refreshed when you’re bathed in sweat.”
Heidi de Marco / KHN

Around Bakersfield, while picking table grapes during the summer and fall harvest, ambulances are a regular sight, Isidoro said. “Daily, you would hear: ‘Here comes the ambulance’ or ‘So-and-so left early because he felt ill.’ ”

But many workers ignore the warning signs, said Aguileo Rangel Rojas, another farm worker. “They are OK risking their health, not thinking about it, to make sure they can make a wage.”

Rangel Rojas knows the risks. In 2005, his 15-year-old son Cruz suffered heatstroke while picking grapes. He spent 15 days in the hospital, and the family wasn’t sure he would survive.

“We didn’t have money,” his father said. “We didn’t speak English. Without cars. Without anything. We didn’t know our rights. It can rip your heart out.”

Cruz stopped picking after that and went back to high school. He’s now a UFW employee. His father, now 53, still works in the fields with his wife.

Aguileo Rangel Rojas, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, has been working as a farm worker in Coachella since 2004.
Aguileo Rangel Rojas, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, has been working as a farm worker in Coachella since 2004.
Heidi de Marco / KHN

In August, Rangel Rojas began working nights, when temperatures drop to the low 80s. Even without extreme heat, though, there are risks. Evaporation from the crops hangs in the air, creating humidity that can help bring on storms and flash floods.

“We can get hit by lightning at any moment, and we could all die,” he said. “There should be an instance when it’s raining, and the bosses have us stop working, but they don’t. We don’t have the luxury of sitting behind a desk.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues.