Farmworkers and Firefighters Are on the Front Lines of Climate-Fueled Catastrophe

Workers paused for a break from harvesting pears in Washington state last summer on a day when the temperature in the orchard reached 103 degrees. Blistering heat and choking smoke from wildfires plagued outdoor workers last summer, especially on the West Coast. Photo: United Farm Workers

Despite the short flurry of support (it seems so long ago) for workers on the front lines, many of the folks who help hold our health and the economy together feel abandoned and used up. The Covid calamity and the escalating climate crisis are creating worker sacrifice zones.

In December, more than 700 workers and allies from across the country made their way (online) to the 10th annual Council on Occupational Safety and Health conference, where they shared stories about the conditions that make going to work a risky affair.

Heat and climate were major threads. We might be in the chill-blast of winter now, but we remember the summer’s heat, from fires in British Columbia to evacuated towns in Oregon to the blistering heat in Washington farmlands.

Outdoor workers were at the center of risk this year. Many were sent into floods and fires—to harvest food, to fight the infernos in the West, or to do dangerous storm cleanup throughout the South and Midwest.

These workers grappled with urgent but often inaccessible health alerts about temperature, air quality, signs of heat stress and fire risk. Many didn’t have the benefit of unions, protective legislation, or functioning public agencies, and faced reprimand or firing if they spoke up about their concerns.


The conference, spread over six days, was fully bilingual (English/Spanish). Farmworkers, the life-force of the food economy, are on the front lines of risk, especially if they are undocumented. In many of California’s agricultural areas, close to 80 percent of the workers speak Mixtec, with Spanish their second language. “Language justice” has become central to health justice.

A “Heat 101” workshop examined people’s experience with heat stress—feeling “head-bumped” or “bear-caught,” and experiencing fainting, heat rashes, cramps, and full-scale heatstroke. Exposed workers urgently need information on what to look for, how to care for each other, and how to organize for water, shade, rest breaks, and diagnostic monitoring.

Joining the COSH gathering can be an antidote to the isolation that accompanies workplace risk and the vulnerability of speaking out on behalf of other workers. As one man said, after discussions with allies, “we don’t feel alone.”

Although OSHA was launched in 1970, there is to this day no national “heat rule.” The map of protections across state lines is a crazy quilt—some states have regulations, some have proposed regulations, some have none at all.

The movement for nationally enforced and effective protections resulted in a proposal by Public Citizen for a binding heat rule. (The rule and other information are on the Public Citizen website; comments were being collected through the end of January.)

At the same time, Public Citizen and its allies are pushing for national legislation, the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness & Fatality Prevention Act. Named in honor of one of many farmworkers who have died from heat exposure, the Act would require OSHA to create an effective rule.



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Another promising development is a strategic campaign in Washington, Oregon, and California to create a Western States Pact to provide coordinated and strengthened protection to agricultural workers. Advocates from primary care, worker health, and environmental protection have come together to push governors and related agencies to work across state lines to lift protections to the highest level. As it is now, a migrant farmworker faces different levels of protection in each state, with confusing and inconsistent practices.

Ira Cuello-Martinez (PCUN, Oregon farmworkers) and Mary Jo Ybarra-Vega (Moses Lake Community Health Center) described how the cross-state movement emerged from farmworkers telling their stories and clinicians seeing the impacts. Together they are pushing state authorities for elevated and enforceable measures to protect farmworkers.

Esteban Wood from the South Florida worker center WeCount! described how a local campaign in the Miami-Dade area has won “the first in the world” municipal heat officer and is pushing for a municipal heat standard. In Sonoma County, California, Jobs with Justice has mobilized “Farmworkers in Fires,” supporting workers in their struggles for premium hazard pay and to make vital information available in the languages used by farmworkers. JwJ also organizes community safety observers to provide information and supplies to farmworkers facing the heat.


COSH is a network of unions, public health providers, health researchers, legal rights advocates and members of various social movements. Sponsors and participants in the conference included major unions along with groups like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights.

These groups are increasingly joined by worker centers—labor/community organizations that support workers who are not yet in a union. Environmentalists such as Public Citizen and the Union of Concerned Scientists are also strategic partners.

Going beyond a legislative approach to workplace safety, the COSH network puts workers directly in touch with scientists and health care providers. Its mission is to support workers by learning from them about the specific health and safety conditions they face, and the efforts they make to protect themselves. The force of these conferences emerges from workers across the country reporting on what they face daily.

The worker safety and health zone is complicated, with a complex matrix of legal and legislated features. The applicable protections and rules could depend on whether you’re in a state OSH system or your workplace is regulated by federal OSHA, as well as whether or not you’re in a union, and if so, what your contract says about safety.

Conference participants discussed tactics including building safety and health committees; negotiating union contracts; and getting the attention of local and national media. Conference members had a promising online meeting with OSHA officials, some of whom are considered strong friends of labor.

A panel titled “Climate Justice = Worker Justice” promoted the foundational principle of “just transition,” to provide re-training and employment when workers’ jobs are threatened in a green transition. Urgently needed action to address climate change must include workers’ voices. Roger Cook, former director of the Western New York COSH in Buffalo, stressed the need for unions to divest from fossil fuel companies, and for environmentalists to take seriously the development of “climate jobs”: funding green projects with well-paid and well-trained workers.

Throughout the year, between annual conferences, the COSH network gives workers and their allies an avenue to build bridges to other movements, and get ideas and resources that can help protect all of us in our jobs. You can find many practical resources and get connected into the network at

Lin Nelson is a retired college teacher, active with the COSH Advisors network.