Experts And Advocates Seek More Protections For Farmworkers

A group of labor organizations, farmworker advocates and health experts are sending a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, this Friday, with their recommendations on permanent rulemaking for heat and smoke protections for farmworkers.

The Western States Pact is composed of members from Washington, Oregon and California. Elizabeth Strater with United Farmworkers, says with the letter, they are hoping to create standards across state lines.

“So even if you only meet the California standard that is currently existing in Washington, Oregon, that will actually make California workers safer, by the fact that we’ll be able to educate and do the outreach in a much more holistic manner,” Strater says.

The letter has around 200 signatories, ranging from labor organizations, environmental justice groups and medical experts. Right now, Strater says rules in the three states, some of which are temporary and will expire, vary. She says some don’t go far enough to protect farmworkers.

The letter lays out recommendations for a Western States Pact excessive heat and wildfire smoke standard. This includes setting the initial threshold for heat at 80 degrees to provide water, shade, breaks and training on heat illness. At the high and extreme heat thresholds, 90 and 95 degrees respectively, employers would be required to provide additional paid breaks for workers.

They also recommend training on the impacts of wildfire smoke when the air quality index nears 69, then providing N95 or a NIOSH approved respirator at an AQI of 101. Wearing the respirators would be required at an AQI of 151 or above.

OSHA announced they will begin the process of federal rulemaking for heat protection, but Strater says this can take a long time.

Ed Rosales, president of the Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens, signed on behalf of his organization. He says that the initial impetus for the letter was that people were dying in the fields, and no one was doing anything about it.

With this letter, Rosales says there can be consistent standards across the states for farmworker protections, and he hopes it will encourage federal protections.

“A three state Western pact is a good beginning, but it has to be the beginning, not the end,” Rosales says.

Australia Tobon, a Whatcom County Promotora, with Community to Community Development, has long seen the dangers facing farmworkers in her work. Tobon’s organization is another signatory to the letter, and she says centering the voices of farmworkers and advocates is crucial in ensuring the best protection.

“We as the experts, the farm worker advocates, the farm workers, ourselves, know what’s best for us,” Tobon says. 

From advocates to health experts, there’s a variety of organizations behind this letter. Katie Huffling, executive director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, signed on behalf of her organization, who she says feels that if you don’t have healthy environments, you can’t have healthy people.

“As we’re seeing changes, because of climate change, like more heat waves, more wildfires, folks that work outside are disproportionately impacted by these,” Huffling says. “It can make working outside incredibly dangerous for some of these folks.”

Huffling wants elected officials to hear from a variety of individuals who support these actions, and know that healthcare professionals are keeping an eye on this issue.