Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown and Alex Padilla are leading a call urging the Labor Department to establish a much-needed permanent federal heat stress standard. Legislators say that the department had previously announced it was adding it to the spring agenda. But as record summer heat has contributed to the deaths of farmworkers, senators say the danger facing workers is “at a pressure point.”
“Amidst record-breaking temperatures, the importance of access to fresh water, shade, training and breaks become a matter of life and death,” senators write to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “Unfortunately, without federal heat standards, thousands of farm workers are vulnerable to heat illness and death.” Legislators are calling on Walsh to implement standards modeled after a bill named after Asunción Valdivia, a farmworker who collapsed and died from heat stroke in 2004.
“In light of the danger of increasing heat waves and rising temperatures due to climate change, we request that you begin work on a permanent standard covering both outdoor and indoor workers, modeled after the provisions in S.1068, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatalities Prevention Act,” legislators write. “This bill directs OSHA to establish an enforceable federal standard to ensure workers and employers can recognize and respond to the signs of heat stress.
“This bill is named in honor of Asunción Valdivia, a 53-year-old California farmworker who died in 2004 of heat stroke, after picking grapes for 10 straight hours in 105-degree temperatures,” they continue. “When Mr. Valdivia became unconscious, his employer told Mr. Valdivia’s son to drive his father home, instead of calling an ambulance. Mr. Valdivia’s death was completely preventable, and his story is not unique.”
Nor have these completely preventable and tragic deaths stopped. The Seattle Times reports that an autopsy revealed that heat was a contributing factor in the death of a Washington farmworker this past July. The worker—69-year-old Florencio Gueta Vargas—was found next to his tractor after working in heat in the low 90s. Despite efforts to revive him, he died at the scene. “There are many unanswered questions about Florencio’s death,” United Farm Workers organizer Elizabeth Strater told The Seattle Times, including whether Gueta Vargas was checked in on throughout his shift.
“Several states are already enacting their own state-level heat standards for the workplace,” legislators continued in their letter to Walsh, “and two states recently issued emergency standards to address ‘extreme’ heat.” But while Oregon’s emergency measures were praised by advocates, The Seattle Times reports Washington’s “were widely criticized by farmworker advocates for falling short of protecting workers.” Additionally, neither are permanent at the moment.
As Daily Kos’ Laura Clawson noted last month, “workers picking cherries and blueberries in temperatures over 100 degrees included children as young as 12 and adults in their 70s, with some employers not even supplying water, let alone shade.” One Washington cherry picker told Vice in June that “[t]here’s no shade where I work. A lot of people who don’t feel well keep working so as not to lose money for lunch or rent. People endure a lot to finish. They give more than they are able to.” Another farmworker from Texas said last month that “[a]t no point do we stop working. Under the hot sun, in the rain. We don’t have another option but to work to survive. And the bosses keep us working so the harvest isn’t lost.”
Legislators tell Walsh that “a federal OSHA standard would be an opportunity to fill in the gap for workers outside of these states.” They made this call to the Labor Department as a United Nations report released this week has warned of a worsening global warming crisis. “It’s time for bold climate action that meets the urgency of the moment,” tweeted Elizabeth Warren, who was among the letter signatories. Ron Wyden, Bernie Sanders, Catherine Cortez Masto, Kirsten Gillibrand, Dianne Feinstein, Richard Blumenthal, Tammy Baldwin, Tina Smith, Edward Markey, and Cory Booker also signed.
“As the climate continues to warm, workers around the country will face ever-increasing risks as they provide for their families and communities,” they conclude. “We ask that you move quickly to protect their health and safety.”
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