Pushing for a Heat Stress Standard in Maryland and Beyond

M. Isabelle Chaudry

Sept. 29, 2021

A recent Maryland law requires the state's Commissioner of Labor and Industry, in consultation with its Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board, to develop and adopt regulations that require employers to protect employees from heat-related illness caused by heat stress. Those standards are due by October 2022.

The law also requires the state to hold four public meetings to collect input from residents. This month, the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Division (MOSH) scheduled those meetings, and I testified at the September 20 session.

As I stated during the hearing, CPR is pleased that Maryland will issue a standard requiring employers to protect workers from heat-related illnesses this session. I and other advocates urged MOSH to address the dangers of working in the heat and the immediate need for the standard.

As noted in my testimony, farmworkers are predominantly Black and brown, and many are from Indigenous and Afro-descended backgrounds, and they often earn wages below the federal poverty level. What’s more, farmworkers may not be authorized to work in the United States, which can cause fear of job loss and even deportation if they complain of or report poor working conditions. Farmworkers play an important role in our nation’s agricultural success, and we must do all we can to ensure adequate safeguards for their health.

Those who work outside are most vulnerable to heat illnesses. These workers, especially migrant farmworkers of color, are socially isolated and economically disadvantaged and often have chronic illnesses. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), farmworkers are 20 times more likely to die from heat stress than workers in other industries. Most of these deaths occur in men between the ages of 20 and 54.

Farmworkers face special risks

Much of the risk to farmworkers is due the nature of their work:

  • Farmworkers labor outside for long hours, largely during the hottest time of the year. Due to climate change, we continue to see both record high temperatures and a record number of days at extreme high temperatures every year. For farmworkers, extreme heat is not a future threat; it is a present danger that already impacts their daily lives.

  • Many farmworkers are paid by the weight of produce picked, a system that discourages rest and bathroom breaks because time away from manual labor results in lower pay.

  • Recent studies show that workers are showing up to work significantly dehydrated and becoming even more dehydrated as the workday progresses. Many farmworkers do not have air conditioning at home, limiting their ability to cool down after work. Remaining in a hot environment contributes to workers arriving to their jobs already dehydrated.

  • Many farmworkers also work with pesticides and must wear heavy protective clothing that is not conducive to staying cool.

In my testimony, I urged MOSH to meet or beat its October 2022 deadline for developing a heat stress standard. Indeed, the agency should promulgate that standard before next summer so more workers don’t suffer or die from heat-related illnesses.

Virginia is in the process of developing its own heat stress standard now and should have it ready within six months. MOSH and other state agencies charged with protecting worker health and safety should follow suit. Workers’ health and safety, and their lives, are at risk until they do. For updates on state actions to protect farmworkers, subscribe to our email list.

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