Workers are at risk in extreme heat, but North Carolina has no protections
The past two weeks have seen some of the year's hottest weather in North Carolina with temperatures in the high 90s and "feels like" heat index values in parts of the state over 110. Extreme heat is a risk for workers, but like most states North Carolina has no standards or regulations to protect them. As the situation worsens with global warming, advocates say it's time for that to change.
In Wilson County, about 40 miles east of Raleigh, Abel Cruz and his coworkers were picking tobacco one day last week. The temperature was in the low 90s, and even hotter when they're working under the plants, Cruz said.
"It’s really difficult because sometimes the tobacco doesn’t let the fresh air through. We’ll be crouched down cutting and the air doesn’t get to us. And the tobacco releases chemicals. With the smell and heat together, that's when we pass out," Cruz said after work at the labor camp where he lives with about 30 other workers.
Cruz, 37, is from a rugged area of central Mexico called Huasteca Potosina. This is his 17th summer working in North Carolina and sending money home to his family. It's grueling work — especially in the heat.
"We’ve cut [tobacco] sometimes to the point of going limp. Sometimes you don’t feel your feet. They won’t respond. Because when you’re really dehydrated, that’s when we lose our faculties," Cruz said.
He and thousands of other laborers — most from Mexico — spend summers on North Carolina's farms, often working 7-day, 70-hour weeks. The state ranks fifth nationally for the number of workers on seasonal H-2A work visas, with about 15,000, according to government data. Thousands more are undocumented.
Many workers say they're acclimated to the heat. Santiago Hernández drives a tractor at a watermelon farm in Wilson County.
"I’ve worked in the fields since I was a kid and you get used to it from childhood. It’s normal work for me," he said.
Watermelon season coincides with peak summer heat. On the most scorching days, it's up to the boss whether you get a water break in the shade or even quit early, Hernández said.
"There have been days when the heat has affected work operations. We’ve stopped early when it’s too hot. But if it’s not too hot, we’ll go until 6 p.m.," he said.
On the tobacco farm where Cruz works, some days there is no break, he said.
"Sometimes we don’t get out of there. When you’re out there, you feel like you’re going to die. Nothing matters. In that moment, you want to go back to Mexico and never hear about it again. Because in that moment, when you’re in full dehydration, you forget the end goal. You’re out there, and you can’t give anymore," Cruz said.
Extreme heat days increase
Extreme heat is the deadliest and fastest-growing of all weather-related risks, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And the number of risky high-heat days is increasing with climate change. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that an average of 43 outdoor workers die of heat exposure every year. Many thousands more wind up in emergency rooms with heat-related illnesses.
"There's deep understanding of how heat affects our bodies," said Kristie Ebi, a professor of public and occupational health at the University of Washington. "And there is deep understanding about what needs to be done to protect people during hot periods of time. And therefore all heat-related deaths are potentially preventable."
But only five states have heat standards for outdoor workers — California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Minnesota, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The federal government has heat safety recommendations but no enforceable rules. The U.S. Labor Department is in the midst of a rulemaking but it's not ready yet.
North Carolina has no statewide standards — just some guidelines on labor and health department webpages. The state's workplace safety law doesn't mention heat or temperature. NRDC estimates that nearly 1.7 million North Carolina workers are in industries most affected by extreme heat.
State labor commissioner Josh Dobson was not available for an interview. A labor department spokeswoman told WFAE that if the federal government (OSHA) adopts a heat-stress standard, "the N.C. Department of Labor will most likely adopt this heat stress standard verbatim."
Workers at risk
The bottom line for now: It's up to employers to do the right thing. And advocates say that's not enough at a time when global temperatures are breaking records.
"What we're seeing now is that the climate is getting hotter, heat waves are getting longer, stronger and more frequent. And that puts workers at even greater risk than even just 10 or 20 years ago," said Juanita Constible, a climate and health advocate with the NRDC.
Constible said she has been working with labor and environmental groups for the past couple of years to push for state standards in North Carolina.
"It could take many months or years. But obviously, we believe that North Carolina workers can't wait. So we're hoping to see action a lot sooner than that," she said.
Concerns in North Carolina are part of a national trend. Over the past several weeks, the United Farm Workers union has stepped up its calls for nationwide standards after the deaths of several farm workers in the Southwest.
Farm labor organizer Leticia Zavala of the group El Futuro Es Nuestro/The Future Is Ours said she has heard reports of at least one heat-related farm worker death in North Carolina this summer. But she hasn't been able to confirm it. The case hasn't been reported publicly, and she said details of these deaths are often hard to pin down.
"It's usually difficult," Zavala said. "The coworkers are usually scared to talk about it. And so it's hard to get real information. And the family gets only information that's passed on to them by the employer."
She said farm employers aren’t held accountable for failing to properly report deaths or injuries.
"There's no oversight of what goes on in agriculture, really. And it's usually up to ourselves for us to fight some of the issues on the ground," Zavala said.
Heat-related illnesses in North Carolina
About 2,600 people visited North Carolina emergency departments for heat-related illnesses between May 1 and Aug. 12, according to the state health department's weekly heat report. About 70% of them are men, and most are of working age.
Heat affects not just agricultural laborers, but also warehouse and factory workers, delivery drivers and first responders. Constible says an NRDC study found that extreme heat also adds to workers' compensation costs for employers in North Carolina.
"We know that it's somewhere in the neighborhood of a few hundred workers every year end up in emergency rooms (and) are losing at least one day of work. That's less than Texas and California and Florida by a longshot, and a lot more than some northern states," Constible said.
State heat standards would reduce those numbers across all types of work — and limit the cost of workers' compensation claims, she said.
Farm laborers are less likely to take days off or report claims because they don't get paid if they don't work. Constible and other advocates say the solutions are simple.
"We'd want to make sure that workers have ready access to cool drinking water at no cost. You would be amazed how many workers right now don't get enough water just at work," she said.
Constible said workers also need the proper clothing and protective equipment for heat, and they need shade and mandatory paid cool-down periods.
Paid breaks are especially important for people who aren't paid hourly, said Clermont Ripley of the North Carolina Justice Center's Workers Rights Project.
"When people are paid a piece rate, or paid by their production, there's this incentive for workers to never stop. You know they're paid pretty low wages to begin with. And then the way they can make enough money is by working as hard as possible, producing as much as possible," she said.
And finally, Constible said, heat standards must require written emergency plans and training,
Zavala, the labor organizer, said standards are needed.
"Growers oftentimes prefer to train workers on what a ripe tobacco leaf looks like than what heatstroke looks like," Zavala said.
Amid the heat, workers keep on laboring and sending money home. Meanwhile, that federal rulemaking on heat standards has been in the works for two years, and it's not clear when it might take effect.