Eighteen-year-old Ricardo has been working in the fields for as long as he can remember. His parents emigrated from Oaxaca and Tijuana before he was born; like so many other immigrants before them, they left Mexico in search of a better life, for themselves, Ricardo, and his brothers.
Currently, Ricardo (Teen Vogue is withholding Ricardo’s last name to protect him from potential workplace retaliation) lives in Fresno County, California, and he and his mother work side by side in a table grape vineyard doing maintenance and removing rotten grapes from vines. July is usually the hottest month of the year in Fresno County, but this year temperatures have been soaring to especially brutal levels. “In the past, we’ve had our fair share of heat waves or extreme heat, but for the most part we were able to work through it,” he tells Teen Vogue. “But now it’s almost every day that it's past 100 or at 90 degrees, and we can feel it get worse. [We] get overwhelmed by the heat and humidity and start to worry about the coming days.”
More or less, Ricardo has grown accustomed to the heat, sunburns, and allergies he’s developed from pollen and pesticides. He worries, though, about his mother and other older folks he sees sweating away next to him. “The people who are most affected by the heat are the ones [who've] been working there the longest, like my mom, who’s developed pain in her bones when she tries to walk,” he says.
But opportunities to rest are few and far between, because every moment — every grape — counts. “For the most part, we work by contract," Ricardo explains, "which means that the more we make in packaging grapes to send to companies, the more we get paid. That means we have to hustle it up.”
Ricardo and his mother are not alone. Rather, they are just two of the millions of U.S. workers whose jobs require them to be outside, rain or shine. They cannot retreat into an air-conditioned office to escape the heat or decide to work from home when the temperature starts to climb. As the climate crisis intensifies, with wildly inadequate intervention from global leaders (despite decades of dire warnings from climate scientists), extreme weather has already become a fact of life in many areas of the U.S.
“The heat waves throughout the South, Southwest, and Northeast are sounding the alarm: We’re living in a climate emergency,” Saket Soni, founder of Resilience Force and a Greenpeace board member, says via email. Extreme heat presents an especially grave risk for workers in industries like agriculture, construction, warehouses, and food service, which contain high concentrations of younger workers.
“Summer jobs for young workers are synonymous with heat exposure, whether it’s as a lawn maintainer, agricultural worker, lifeguard, amusement park operator, camp counselor or restaurant worker, just to name a few,” National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) COSH coexecutive director Jessica E. Martinez tells Teen Vogue. “Workers of all ages need to know that extreme heat is a dangerous hazard that can lead to serious illness and can be fatal if not prevented. We know the steps needed to reduce risk: plenty of water, frequent rest, and shaded rest areas for those working outside. Good ventilation, airflow, and air conditioning for indoor workers. But not all employers provide these lifesaving necessities. There is no single, national standard to protect workers from heat stress.”
Employers have a legal responsibility to provide safe workplaces, thanks to the General Duty Clause of the OSHA Act of 1970, which requires all employers to provide a work environment that is "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm," which includes heat exposure. But without a federal heat standard in place, employers are free to interpret the rules as they wish, and as NPR reports, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been criticized both for failing to penalize companies for worker heat deaths and not following up to ensure said companies are complying with safety rules. NPR also reported that OSHA has kept poor records on heat-related worker fatalities, which means that there’s no way to know exactly how many workers have died from the heat (and that existing tallies are almost certainly undercounted). Workers of color, especially Latino workers like Ricardo and his mother, make up a disproportionate number of heat-related deaths.
Earlier this year, OSHA did roll out a new heat safety program aimed at raising awareness of heat danger among those who work in the hottest conditions. OSHA has included a number of employer guidelines on its website, as well as worker safety checklists and other information about working safely in extreme heat. And in 2021, the agency began the long and convoluted rule-making process to enact a heat standard, and the Biden administration announced a number of initiatives designed to protect workers from extreme heat on the job. But it’s unclear what concrete results have been achieved. As Martinez says, “We desperately need a federal OSHA standard on heat stress. Extreme heat can happen anywhere and every worker deserves to be safe, no matter where she or he lives.”
Laborers who are used to sweating it out on the job are now struggling to keep up with rising temperatures. Deep in the heart of Texas, airline maintenance worker and labor activist Tevita Uhatafe spends most of his workday outside surrounded by concrete, steel, and airplane exhaust. He has lost count of the number of times he’s felt dizzy or unwell on the job due to the excess heat. “I consider myself to be in the best shape I’ve been physically since high school, but this heat seems way more draining to the body than I’ve ever felt before,” he says.
“Management has been hiring like crazy to replace workers who either retired or died during the first year and a half of the pandemic," Uhatafe continues, "[and] with these record temperatures, and a huge amount of newly hired employees experiencing their first summer on the ramp, many workers are finding themselves teetering on the verge of heat illnesses or worse on a daily basis.”
Another Texan, electrician Corey Baum, has spent most of his summer working on rooftop projects that put him in direct sun for hours. A member of IBEW Local 520 and the IWW, Baum credits “the union mentality of solidarity” with helping to keep his coworkers safe in the punishing heat. “Checking in with each other about hydration, reminding each other to reapply sunscreen, if someone looks flushed, telling them to go take a break,” he notes.
All of the workers I spoke with in this story (except Ricardo, who is a member of the UFW Foundation) talked about how important it has been for them to have a union to look out for them at work and ensure employers are following safety rules. Without a strong federal heat standard, workers have to look out for one another — especially in hot spots like Texas. “It’s always been a brutal place to live and work in the summer months, but one of the biggest changes, it seems to me, has been the duration of the extreme heat," says Baum. "This year, for instance, we’ve [seen] triple digits since the end of May.”
Even workers who live farther north are feeling the burn. Take my partner, who helps run an urban farm in Philadelphia: Each day he comes home from work exhausted, sunburned, and soaked in sweat. “Most people don’t actually realize how the heat affects people who work outside,” he tells me. “But you’ve got to watch out because working manual labor, especially farm work, you can get heat exhaustion real fast, especially when it’s above 90 and if you’re doing the same thing over and over. You get shivers, your mind gets cloudy, you start blanking on what you need to do. But you’ve got to keep working because you have to keep up the pace.”
Even with the heat, Zoe Peters, a union carpenter in Boston, loves her job and is proud of all the sweat and tears she’s poured into building the city’s skyline. She’s currently working on a new 43-story commercial building, where she says there is no temperature control and the upper floors reach the high 80s with no airflow and high humidity. The job site is closed off. To get through the long, hot days, she relies on bottled water and a personal neck fan (she says it looks “ridiculous” but does help).
As a construction worker, Peters is concerned about the impact the climate crisis is having on her and her coworkers and how her industry fits into the bigger picture. Extreme heat is only one piece of the disastrous puzzle humanity has laid out for itself, and solving it will take much more than empty promises from politicians. “I think a lot about the supply chain, about how our work depends on the resources that this earth makes,” she says. “What will happen to our jobs when we run out of the components used to create drywall, concrete, steel? I love my job as a union carpenter, and I want to be part of the movement to use materials sustainably, without creating excess. I want my work as a builder to give back to the environment and help it heal, not just take.”
For now, as the climate crisis worsens, workers fret about the future and temperatures continue to spike across the U.S. Ricardo has only a few items on his wish list, but more than anything else, he just wants more breaks during long days so workers can look out for their health.
Uhatafe adds, “I believe a lack of empathy towards the challenges we’re working in can be fixed, but it’ll take the people in positions who make decisions to change their mindset. We are not machines. We are people.”
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