Enforcement and Inspection, Heat illness

Farmworkers Face Heat Risk Despite Regulations

Farmworkers in California remain at risk for heat-related illness despite farms’ compliance with the state’s heat illness prevention program standard, according to research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 

Around 7% of farmworkers studied were at risk for heat-related illness despite compliance with California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) regulations for providing adequate water, shade, rest periods, and training.

The study’s conclusions included:

  • A need for revised Cal/OSHA regulations that adjust work rates and hydration requirements; and
  • New training recommendations relevant to the cultural and behavioral needs of the estimated 800,000 California farmworkers.

At-risk workers did not have enough water to stay hydrated and were at an increased risk for heat-related illness from outside temperatures and work rate, according to researchers. Researchers at the NIOSH-funded Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety found that more than half of the farmworkers lacked adequate knowledge about heat-related illness, although 86% reported having been trained during the past year.

Researchers looked at 30 farms in California’s Central and Imperial Valleys during the summers of 2014 and 2015. Study participants included 507 Latino farmworkers; 36% were female, and all were 18 years or older. The study data included outdoor temperature and humidity, questionnaire responses, and work rate (the movements per minute) measured by a wearable device. Researchers also considered body temperature, weight, and height.

The article, “Are Cal/OSHA Regulations Protecting Farmworkers in California From Heat-Related Illness?” appears in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

There is no federal heat exposure or heat illness prevention standard; however, NIOSH first published a criteria document for a standard for hot environments in 1972, updating it in 1986 and again in 2016. This summer, Oregon established an emergency temporary standard for heat illness, and Oregon OSHA is developing a permanent standard. Washington has a heat stress standard, and Minnesota has rules for heat and cold exposures.

Rhabdomyolysis risk in landscaping, tree care

NIOSH separately reported that grounds maintenance workers, including landscaping and tree care workers, working long hours outside in the heat and in direct sunlight are at risk for heat exposure and heat stress. They also are at risk for rhabdomyolysis, or rhabdo, due to muscle damage from doing strenuous work in a hot environment.

Rhabdo is the rapid breakdown of muscle and can be caused by many different things, including increased core body temperature and the muscles being overworked. Once the contents of muscle cells are released into the bloodstream, they can cause damage to many parts of the body, including the heart and kidneys, and, if not treated promptly, it can result in death or permanent disability.

According to the institute, steps employers can take to reduce the risks of rhabdo and other heat-related illnesses include:

  • Having a heat stress management policy to decrease the risk of heat-related illness that could lead to rhabdo;
  • Making annual medical evaluations available to workers and ensuring preemployment screening includes an assessment of heat stress and rhabdo risk factors;
  • Training workers in a language and vocabulary they understand to ensure they are aware of the risk factors for heat-related illnesses, including rhabdo;
  • Allowing workers time to acclimatize, gradually introducing new workers or those who have been off the job for over two weeks to working in the heat over a seven- to 14-day period; and
  • Providing clean, fresh water and encouraging workers to drink one cup every 15–20 minutes, as well as providing workers with sports drinks that contain balanced electrolytes to replace those lost during prolonged sweating lasting more than two hours.

Landscaping and tree care workers may be exposed to numerous physical, chemical, and biological hazards while performing work, especially during the summer months.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is developing a tree care industry standard the industry requested.

Tree care continues to be a high-hazard industry, and the industry petitioned OSHA for a standard. The agency issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in 2008 and completed a Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA) review in May 2020. That rulemaking is in the proposed rule stage, according to the agency’s most recent regulatory agenda.

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