Heat kills crop workers at rate 20 times higher than others

WASHINGTON — Heat kills crop workers at nearly 20 times the rate of other U.S. workers, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released Thursday.

Fatality rates were highest in North Carolina, followed by Florida and California, the CDC found.

The CDC report, which reviewed 423 deaths from 1992 through 2006, is the most comprehensive nationwide look at heat-related fatalities. They're generally caused by heat stroke or injuries resulting from heat-induced nausea and confusion.

The greatest number of heat-related deaths was in construction, the CDC found, but the highest rate of deaths was among crop workers.

Their rate was 0.39 per 100,000 workers per year, compared with 0.02 for other U.S. workers.

North Carolina's heat-related death rate was 2.36 per 100,000 workers per year. Florida's was 0.74 and California's 0.49. No rates were provided for the 21 other states that had one or more reported deaths related to heat.

According to Neal O'Briant, a spokesman for North Carolina's Labor Department, the state's high death rate is due to an influx of migrant workers — especially foreigners — who are unaccustomed to the state's hot and humid climate. He also said that workers tended to be in the fields more in July and August, the hottest months of the year.

The CDC found that from 2003 to 2006, the only period in which it knew the nationalities of all workers, 71 percent of the dead were Hispanic.

With July by far the deadliest month and temperatures rising each year, the heat hazards are growing, officials said. "We have to be aware of this and recognize the way to help workers in outdoor climates," said Dawn Castillo, the chief of surveillance and field investigations at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

She said employers needed to talk to workers in their native languages about heat risks.

No specific federal regulations protect workers from heat, and only one state — California — does so.

California's rules — adopted after four workers died in a July 2005 heat wave — require farms and contractors to provide workers with four cups of water per hour, accessible shaded areas and five-minute breaks if they feel faint. They also require employers and workers to be trained in preventing and recognizing heat illnesses and in first aid to treat them.

Nonetheless, problems persist, said Armando Elenes, the organizing director for United Farm Workers, a labor union most active in California.

"We get daily phone calls from workers who say they had to buy umbrellas to have shade, or had to pay for the water, or had to make a choice between losing 10 minutes of work to take a break and drink water or continue working," Elenes said.

Next month, Washington state will adopt California's rules, said Elaine Fischer, the director of communications for the state's Department of Labor and Industries.

Fischer thinks that many heat-related casualties go unreported because workers who fall or are mangled by machinery never recognize the dizzying effect of heat as a factor in their injuries.

In North Carolina, where 97 percent of the agricultural businesses are small and family-owned, regulation is difficult, said Kristen Borre, the director of the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute at East Carolina University in Greenville.

"Heat-related regulations are fine," she said, "but you can only enforce them if you have the structure and the resources to do so, which is not the case in North Carolina."

Borre said that educating farmers and supervisors worked better, and that that was what the institute had done so far in coordination with the Department of Labor.

According to their advocates, the nearly 3 million U.S. migrant and seasonal farm workers are so poor and vulnerable that they rarely speak up for fear of losing their jobs.

"They don't talk because they need to provide for their families," Elenes said.

Thus far this year, three California workers have died of suspected heat illnesses. Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17-year-old Mexican who was two months pregnant, was the latest death.

Jimenez collapsed and died two days later after reportedly pruning vines for nine hours without a water break. Elenes cited reports that Jimenez's body temperature was 108 degrees when she collapsed.

Jimenez worked for Merced Farm Labor at a vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming in Farmington, Calif. The California Labor Commission revoked Merced Farm Labor's license after the May 16 death.


The CDC's report.