The past decade has been the warmest on record for the Southeast region. Georgia’s average temperature for the six-month period from May to October has been rising since 1995.
The latest data from this summer shows no relief on the horizon. Average rates of heat-related illness admissions to the emergency room from May to June this year were up by a third in the Southeast compared to the previous three years, according to a report from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
Dr. James Ellis, the chairman of emergency medicine at Piedmont Henry Hospital in Stockbridge, said he and his colleagues have seen an uptick in patients with heat illness during periods of high temperatures this summer — especially among people who work outside.
“Construction, roofers, landscapers — that is definitely the big majority,” Ellis said.
Farther outside the big cities, it’s often farm workers.
Lupe Gonzalo spent 12 years harvesting crops like tomatoes in Georgia and across the Southeast, working long hours in punishing heat.
“Sometimes the sun feels like it’s actually burning your back as you’re working,” Gonzalo said, speaking through an interpreter. “Oftentimes, workers will faint or will be affected because they’re dehydrated and overheated.”
Credit: Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Credit: Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Federal government heat stress standard moves slowly
Today, Gonzalo travels from state to state and farm to farm educating agricultural workers about their rights for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. She said in her experience as a worker and an organizer, it’s not uncommon for people working in the fields to be denied or discouraged from breaks and access to shade and water, even during heat waves.
None of these protections are mandated. Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor announced its intention to issue its first rule for heat injury and illness prevention, but the rulemaking process could take years and face industry opposition. Some advocacy organizations like Public Citizen have called on the agency to move sooner and take emergency action.
Currently, employers are required to provide a safe working environment under a general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. But unlike areas like chemical exposure, for example, there are no specific standards or protocols related to heat safety.
Creating a new standard specific to heat-related injury and illness prevention “would more clearly set forth employer obligations,” a Department of Labor spokesperson wrote in an email. “Rulemaking takes time, and it’s critical that we get it right.”
Some advocates have expressed concern that the rule could be weakened or thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has recently sought to limit the government’s ability to regulate major issues.
“I think it is unlikely, but the Court could conceivably hold that heat issues are not covered by OSHA’s general duty clause, and thus cannot be regulated unless Congress gives OSHA a specific grant of authority,” labor attorney Michael Schoenfeld wrote in an email. “If OSHA cites climate change as a basis for a heat-related rule, that will definitely open it up for close scrutiny.”
Risk higher for farm, construction workers
The Southeast is expected to continue warming in the decades to come. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, by the end of this century, temperatures above 95 degrees could become very common, especially in middle and south Georgia, according to the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit released by the federal government.
Chris Butts, executive vice president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said it was too early to say whether his organization would push back on any proposed new federal rule, because a draft has not been released.
Butts expressed confidence that his association’s members, who represent about 90% of large growers in the state, are already doing right by their employees.
“Our growers don’t necessarily need OSHA standards or regulations in order to do the right thing,” Butts said. “It’s taking care of your people the same as you take care of any other asset, and that means protecting them.”
But a recent high-profile case highlights the vulnerability of farm workers to demands of their employers. Last year, federal prosecutors unveiled “Operation Blooming Onion,” a sprawling investigation of gross human rights violations against migrant workers on South Georgia farms, including two people who died of heat stress, according to the indictment.
Butts emphasized that none of the two dozen defendants were members of his organization.
“Would increased regulations catch some of those bad actors? Possibly,” Butts said. “The good actors aren’t necessarily afraid of sensible regulations.”
A few states, including California, Minnesota, Washington and, most recently, Oregon, have instituted their own heat standards, most of which require access to water, shade, special training, breaks and an acclimation period for new workers. Georgia does not have any state-level heat standards.
OSHA’s proposed rule would apply to indoor and outdoor work sites. But people working outside are particularly vulnerable to heat illness and death. According to one study, agricultural workers were 35 times more likely to die from heat than workers in other industries. Construction workers were 13 times more likely. Together, agriculture and construction accounted for 58% of heat deaths over the 10-year period covered by the study.
OSHA has investigated at least five heat deaths in Georgia since 2017, and a handful of heat-related illnesses, according to its public database. A labor department spokesperson wrote that the agency never investigated any of the defendants named in the indictment for Operation Blooming Onion.
OSHA’s list is likely an undercount, according to Roxana Chicas, an assistant professor at Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. Chicas studies occupational health, particularly among Spanish-speaking immigrants who make up a large bulk of the workforce in agriculture and construction.
Many workers in these industries are migrants who make very little money and are dependent on their employers, she said, and they are often reluctant to seek medical attention or file complaints, regardless of their legal status. Chicas also said heat-related illness or death may not be recorded properly at the hospital or morgue, especially if heat is a contributing factor.
“If a construction worker is on a roof working and he falls, it is likely going to be coded as ‘He fell,’” she said. “But it could have been caused by excessive heat exposure that caused him to be dizzy and faint.”
Chicas said employers should be required by law to adjust hours and provide shade, water, protective clothing and mandatory breaks. She also advocated against picking quotas or piece rates that pay workers by how much they harvest and incentivize them to push themselves beyond their limits.
“I think that there’s still this notion in society that thinks that immigrant workers or workers of color are built to withstand working outside in the heat, and that’s not the case,” she said. “They need protections, just like many of us have.”
Israel Bello of Austell has worked in construction for 15 years, and said working conditions vary from employer to employer, especially in an industry where so much work is subcontracted out.
“It also depends on the leader of that crew that’s working,” said Bello. “Most of the time, those guys, they don’t really give you breaks, you know? Sometimes, I’ve seen crews that they don’t even have a cooler with water.”
Bello said workers affected by the heat can experience chills and cramps, and some get so sick they can’t stop vomiting.
“Even if they feel sick, you know, they don’t want to say anything because they might get fired or they might get sent home,” he said.
Consumer pressure grows on retailers, growers
In the absence of enforceable government rules, some workers’ rights advocates have found success applying pressure to businesses.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, where Gonzalo works, has struck a series of Fair Food legal agreements with retailers and growers committing them to upholding pay and safety standards, including heat protections. The program started in Florida and has since spread to other states, including Georgia, where two tomato farms are partner growers.
“Most of our focus and our attention is on bringing more companies into the Fair Food program,” said Gonzalo. “What we’ve seen is that when there are laws that are passed, it’s important for them to have enforcement mechanisms and for there to be resources behind that enforcement, and so often that doesn’t happen.”
Participating retailers include well-known brands such as McDonald’s, Walmart, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Absent from the list are two of Georgia’s largest grocery store chains: Kroger and Publix.
Butts, from the growers’ association, said a number of retailers have instituted their own standards for their suppliers.
“We’re certainly starting to see more social accountability and climate accountability that these retailers want to be sure that their suppliers are living up to some standards,” he said.