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Workers Are Dying Of Heat Outdoors Without Standards To Protect Them


California is one of only a handful of states with laws meant to protect workers from heat. It's held up as a model for the rest of the country. But workers in California are still getting sick and dying on hot days. And rising temperatures associated with climate change are making it harder to stay safe. NPR and the investigative unit at the Columbia Journalism School looked into how California does and does not protect workers. Here's Jacob Margolis of member station KPCC.

JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Just a few minutes north of Los Angeles, as the city gives way to orchards and fields, you'll find Muranaka Farms, where farm worker Sonia Bonce is kneeling in the dirt, listening to music and trimming gigantic green leeks. Last year, she says, she was working in these same fields when temperatures approached triple digits.

SONIA BONCE: (Through interpreter) I was getting dizzy, had a headache, and my legs were shaking.

MARGOLIS: She collapsed.

BONCE: (Through interpreter) I got sick and fell to the ground, and then they brought the ambulance.

MARGOLIS: She took two days off work, unpaid, she says, and then got right back to it. California's heat standard, held up as a model for the rest of the nation, requires shade, water and breaks when workers ask for them, though they're often unpaid.

JUNE SPECTOR: Water, rest, shade - those are critical things that we need to implement and have. But that may not be enough.

MARGOLIS: That's Dr. June Spector. She studies heat and other climate change impacts on workers at the University of Washington, Seattle. Since California's heat standard went into effect in 2005, 73 workers have died, according to data from Cal OSHA, and that's likely an undercount. Those deaths include farm workers, construction workers and firefighters, deaths that experts say are preventable. The state could see the number of extreme heat days increase by as much as 20 times in the next three decades, according to California's EPA. Spector says as temperatures rise, more outdoor workers will likely get sick.

SPECTOR: Among agricultural workers specifically, we would expect to see an increased risk for heat-related illness as we have more frequent and intense heat exposure over time.

MARGOLIS: Heat illness can impair cognitive function and do lasting damage to organs if it's not addressed quickly. Those with poor access to health care and who work outside, like the many undocumented workers in agriculture, are among those most likely to be hurt by rising temperatures.

ROBERT RIVAS: We have a long way to go.

MARGOLIS: Robert Rivas is a California state assemblyman who represents the Salinas area. His grandfather was a farm worker, and he thinks that it's time the state revisits its standard.

RIVAS: We certainly must do more because we have to keep in mind that farm and agricultural workers here in California - they work under some conditions that many, if not most of us, wouldn't tolerate.

MARGOLIS: The experts we spoke with say that there are a number of ways that California and employers could start adapting to our warming climate. For one, encourage workers to take breaks by making sure that workers get paid for those breaks. The state could also set a temperature at which work stops outright. Some workers in Coachella Valley, for instance, are picking grapes when it's 115 degrees outside. The day we visited Sonia at Muranaka Farms, it was a pretty typical hot day in the low 90s.

BONCE: (Through interpreter) It is dangerous with this heat. It's too dangerous to be working like that in the country.

MARGOLIS: And those hot days are only getting hotter.

I'm Jacob Margolis.

KELLY: Brian Edwards of Columbia Journalism Investigations helped report that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELKHORN'S "TO SEE DARKNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jacob Margolis