Turning up the heat on farmworkers

IWMD 24' : Farmworkers feel the heat of a changing climate

Reading time: 5 min

Every year on April 28, trade unions and their members unite to mark International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD). Events are held across the world to remember those who have lost their lives at work, or from work-related injury and diseases.

IWMD has turned its attention to ‘climate change and workers’ health’ this year. In today’s story in our special UniteLive series in the week ahead of IWMD, we highlight how Unite members toiling outside on UK farms and forests are being encouraged to understand the dangers of working in an increasingly dangerous environment.

Last year was the hottest year on record, with workplace deaths and damage to health as a result of global warming rising everywhere, and it’s only expected to increase.

The changing climate can result in increasing levels of heat stress, UV radiation, air pollution, industrial accidents, extreme weather events, vector-borne diseases, and chemical exposure – all issues that will impact on the thousands forestry and farmworkers.

On July 19, 2022, the UK recorded its hottest day ever, with the mercury reaching 40.3°C in the rural Lincolnshire village of Coningsby. During the heatwave that summer over 3,000 extra deaths were recorded.

Outside the UK global heating is killing farmworkers. Many reports point to the dangers that agricultural workers face in the fields. One from Inside Climate News late last year highlighted the fact that “scores of California farmworkers are dying in the heat in regions with chronically bad air”.

Meanwhile, a report from the American Lung Association last October said, “Research has shown that agricultural workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat-related stress than workers in other industries.”

With extreme heat events expected to increase in frequency, duration, and intensity, employers in the agricultural industry need to think about adapting and being more prepared. Protecting workers against the risks climate change presents should be a priority.

Commenting, John Burbidge from Unite’s Tolpuddle branch said, “Farmworkers face increasing hazards due to the changing climate, and many are already seeing working patterns change in the summer to avoid the worst of the midday heat.”

“However it is not just heat that poses a risk. Extreme weather can result in storms that bring down trees and farm buildings, or flooding that increases the risk to those driving around rural areas as part of their job. There is also an increased chance of lightning strikes in exposed fields and upland areas.”

Unite is calling for a number of changes to make work safer as the climate changes. These include improved risk assessments in cases of extreme weather, a maximum working temperature, increased breaks and the right to stop the job.

Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture Bev Clarkson said, “The impact of a changing climate on workers is felt particularly keenly by our members working outdoors in all weathers to provide the food on our tables.”

“The impact of extreme weather events, such as harsher heatwaves or stronger storms, can result in worryingly dangerous working conditions, and Unite is calling on all employers to ensure that they provide adequate protection, improved facilities and appropriate risk assessments that will make this work as safe as possible and reduce the chance of workers being exposed to the risks associated with a warming world.”

Unite offers practical advice to reps on protective measures in hot weather, which includes: 

  • Regular and more frequent rest breaks 
  • Providing adequate facilities and free access to cool fresh drinking water 
  • Ensuring agreements are in place to cover suspension of work in high temperatures.
  • Agreeing a cut-off point depending on where the work is taking place. 
  • Check work rate – the harder someone works, the more body heat they generate
  • Provide mechanical aids where possible to reduce the work rate. 
  • Provide shaded rest areas in appropriate places 
  • Reschedule work to cooler times of the day  
  • Provide specialised PPE which can incorporate personal cooling systems or breathable fabrics. 
  • Allow workers to acclimatise to their environment and identify which workers are acclimatised or assessed as fit to work in hot conditions. 
  • Identify employees who are more susceptible to heat stress because of an illness, condition or medication that may contribute to the early onset of heat stress.
  • Provide training for workers about the risks of heat stress associated with their work, what symptoms to look out for, safe working practices and emergency procedures.

You can read the other stories in our International Workers’ Memorial Day series here.

By Keith Hatch