Relief from the Heat

Fair Food Program sets new, enforceable standards to protect farmworkers from heat stress in a warming world…

New FFP standards require mandatory breaks, comprehensive training, and emergency response protocols on participating farms as summer season temperatures once again reach new all-time highs across the country.

“Overheated, Underprotected: Climate Change Is Killing U.S. Farmworkers,” (Bloomberg, 8/12/21)

Biden administration, workers grapple with health threats posed by climate change and heat,” (Washington Post, 7/19/21)

“Unsafe Workdays for Farmworkers Could Double by 2150,” (Modern Farmer, 5/6/20)

“It’s official: July was the Earth’s hottest month on record,” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 8/13/21)

Workers Are Dying Of Heat Outdoors Without Standards To Protect Them,” (NPR, 8/17/21)

Those are just a few of the countless headlines in papers across the country warning of the growing threat to farmworkers, and other outdoor workers, posed by steadily rising temperatures as the real-life impacts of long-term climate change become manifest.  Rachel Licker, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and an author of a recent UCS study on the threats posed to outdoor workers by the increasing number and intensity of dangerous heat waves, perhaps said it best in an interview this month with National Public Radio:

“The last seven years have been the hottest on record,” said Rachel Licker, the senior climate scientist and an author of the UCS report, said in a statement. “Without additional protections, the risks to workers will only grow in the decades ahead as climate change worsens, leaving the roughly 32 million outdoor workers in our country to face a brutal choice: their health or their jobs.”  (read more)

The same NPR story goes on to address the lack of state and federal protections for farmworkers and other outdoor workers and to recommend several key policy changes to prevent and remedy heat stress in the years to come:

Lack Of Regulations Puts Outdoor Workers At Risk

In addition to the heightened risks posed by climate change, the UCS report highlights the lack of federal worker protections as a major issue for worker safety.

As NPR has previously reported, at least a dozen companies have had multiple employees die from environmental heat exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not adopted a national heat standard to safeguard workers and often decides not to penalize companies for worker deaths…

… Employers, the report says, should also implement mandatory heat safety plans, heat monitoring and reporting requirements, and multilingual training for supervisors and workers to facilitate better and faster responses to dangers imposed by extreme heat.

“We know this risk is worsening and has significant implications for workers, employers and the broader economy, so we need to be prepared,” Licker said.

Fair Food Program tackles extreme heat safety issues, sets forth new worker protections on FFP farms…

Last week, following weeks of research, data collection, and discussion, the Fair Food Program stepped into this breach and established important new heat safety standards for farmworkers under the FFP’s protections.  In consultation with the Fair Food Standards Council (the third-party monitor that enforces the Fair Food Program Code of Conduct on Participating Farms), and with Participating Growers on the FFP’s Working Group (a collaborative body at the heart of the FFP that provides essential feedback on emerging issues necessary to develop practical regulations designed to remedy those issues), the CIW set forth enforceable standards requiring mandatory breaks; comprehensive, trilingual training; and emergency response protocols, effective immediately, on all Fair Food Program farms.  

On top of the FFP Code of Conduct’s existing provisions guaranteeing workers access to shade, water, and elective rest breaks, the FFP’s new “Heat Stress Illness Awareness, Prevention, and Response Plan” adds several key new protections, including:

From May 1 – October 31

  • Mandatory Cool-Down Rest Breaks: All crews engaged in harvesting must take rest breaks of no less than 10 minutes every 2 hours (due to the logistical challenges of managing large crews in expansive fields, breaks can be taken slightly before the two-hour mark or slightly after, but no longer than 2.5 hours from the last break)
  • Increased Monitoring: Crewleaders and HR staff will review with crews the plan’s heat stress prevention measures, actively scan employees for symptoms of heat stress, and identify and closely monitor new employees during their first three weeks on the job as they acclimate to the heat.    

Effective year-round

  • Education and Training (trilingual): Employees and supervisors will be trained on the requirements of the plan, on the signs and symptoms of heat illness, and on the responses to symptoms of heat illness, as required by the plan.
  • Responding to Heat Stress Symptoms: Any employee who reports or is identified by a supervisor as showing signs or symptoms of heat illness will be immediately relieved from duty to hydrate and rest in shade, as well as have the right to receive medical care if requested (including being taken to a clinic or emergency room), with the particular response always to be in keeping with the OSHA standards for appropriate first aid to be given for particular symptoms.

This is, of course, not the first time the FFP has responded quickly and concretely to unforeseen, emerging threats to workers’ health and safety.    The COVID-19 pandemic represented another such threat that — unimaginable just a decade ago when the Fair Food Program’s original Code of Conduct was drafted — required the quick and effective promulgation of new standards to prevent the spread of the deadly virus on FFP participating farms.  And just as it did in the case of heat stress and rising temperatures over the past many weeks, the FFP’s Working Group met last year over a series of weeks before the FFP established the agricultural industry’s first mandatory, enforceable COVID safety protocols that made an immediate and real impact on workers’ lives.  One of those workers, Antonia Rios Hernandez, spoke to the New York Times about her experience on an FFP farm in an article from earlier this year titled, “Voices from the Front Lines of America’s Food Supply.”  Here’s an excerpt: 

I worked on and off over the years. I worked for the last full season here, including during the pandemic. I started in August of 2019 in planting, then I worked all the way to the end of harvest, around May or June last year.

It’s a long day, it’s very challenging work. We would be picking, for example, cucumbers in the morning and tomatoes in the afternoon and they’re both very heavy work. My fingers would hurt by the end of the day. It hurts your back and makes your lungs ache to work that hard. I would sometimes come home and would just cry.

We were working long days, but they put a lot of protections in place. Lipman Family Farms were a part of the Fair Food program, and followed the procedures.

We would clean all of the tables with Clorox or bleach and make sure that everyone was washing their hands well. Thank God no one I know got sick. I wasn’t too afraid of the pandemic because of the precautions that the company was taking. They hired people specifically to clean the buses every day.

The ability of the Fair Food Program to tackle and remedy some of the most pressing threats to workers’ health and safety today — from COVID to extreme heat —  is truly unique among social responsibility programs.  The FFP has repeatedly proven itself nimble enough to direct its already existing, best-in-class monitoring and enforcement mechanisms toward the enforcement of new standards with unparalleled efficacy. Moreover, the partnership among workers, growers, and buyers at the heart of the Fair Food Program is able, with the help of the FFP’s unique Working Group, to identify and address those emerging threats in an environment of collaboration and mutual respect, arriving quickly and effectively at new, enforceable protections every time the world throws us a new curve, saving countless lives and showing the way forward for workers in corporate supply chains across the country. 

We’ll give the last word on today’s news to one of those key grower partners, Jon Esformes, CEO of Sunripe Certified Brands (formerly Pacific Tomato Growers, the very first major grower to sign a Fair Food Agreement back in 2010) and a Working Group participant since its inception:

As circumstances on the ground evolve, circumstances like the worsening climate crisis, Sunripe Certified Brands is grateful for our partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and our participation in the Fair Food Program. Through that partnership I am confident that we will continue to insure that our farms continue to deliver on the promise of a safe and fair workplace for everyone who honors us with their work. 

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