The Grapes of Warmth

Forget the Merlot, kids, and start thinking Corona-- or Blatz, for those of you on a budget. A recent Associated Press report said climate warming could spell trouble for much of the U.S. wine industry. And a National Academy of Sciences study predicts suitable growing areas for premium grapes could be reduced by 5o percent--and as much as 81 percent by century's end. "The main problem, according to Noah Diffenbaugh of Perdue University's Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, "is an increase in the frequency of extremely hot days.' Grapes used in premium wines need a consistent climate," he said in a Tampa Tribune article.

It's not just the vineyard owners who are feeling the heat of global warming. In August 2005, after the fourth farm worker that year died from heat exhaustion, Governor Schwarzenegger ordered implementation of emergency regulations in California to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat. More about this at www.ufw.org.

Last year Democratic assemblywoman Judy Chu introduced AB 805 which, in summary would require Cal-OSHA to adopt by December 1, 2006 a standard for heat illness prevention, and prescribes certain requirements for that standard. It passed in the assembly but was opposed by Bakersfield republican Kevin McCarthy. He proposes instead an "educational campaign" in which workers get cards printed in English and Spanish, listing heat exposure symptoms and advising the workers to drink more water and sit in the shade. Not addressed in McCarthy's proposal is that often there is no shade, no water, or inadequate water supplies. In addition, since many farmworkers are paid piece work wages, their pay is docked for time spent not working. AB 805 (info.sen.ca.gov/pub/bill/) is opposed-- not surprisingly-- by the California Chamber of Commerce, Construction Employers Association, and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. AB 805 now awaits Senate consideration after the return of lawmakers from summer break.

The problem with McCarthy's self help cards is it puts the burden for enforcement of basic health and safety standards on the workers, who are dependent upon their employers for their livelihood, and sometimes even their housing. The unique employment conditions of migrant farmworkers make them especially vulnerable.

And Cali isn't the only state with heat related illnesses and deaths in the workplace. Florida's sunshine state economy relies heavily on agriculture, construction, and landscaping; all outside jobs. Moreover, many of Florida's so called "indoor" jobs--in laundries, bakeries, and foundries, for example, are in non air- conditioned workplaces. These involve heavy physical labor in factories and warehouses, and yes--even Target stores. Read moreTarget worker adventures at www.targetunion.org . Overnight workers at Target who unload truck freight and stock store shelves begin their shifts after the stores close--and the air conditioning system is shut off.

I did an internet search, looking for some kind of Florida law similar to AB 805, that protects workers from heat related illnesses, and I found none. Bruce Nissen, a director at Florida International University's Center for Labor Research and Studies, said he's never heard of any Florida law protecting workers from heat illness. I did find an OSHA poster dated 2003, listing recommendations for working in hot environments -- again putting the compliance burden on workers.

After ten years in Florida, with my last three jobs here not air- conditioned, I know these voluntary compliance schemes don't work. I personally had to bring a note from my doctor to be "allowed" to carry a bottle of water with me on the job at Target-- a job that involved heavy physical labor in a non air conditioned environment. Even after asserting my rights, I was continuously harassed by a supervisor. Now imagine what might happen to a worker who doesn't speak English, doesn't understand our laws, and fears deportation.

Voluntary safety precautions didn't work for a North Carolina farmworker named Urbano Ramirez, who was working in the tobacco fields in 2001 when his nose started to bleed. He was told by the foreman to go rest under a tree. Ten days later his family found him dead, under that same tree. According to a Miami Herald article I recently dug up, Urbano was one of 11 Mexican born farm workers to die in North Carolina that year. It's not known whether the heat killed him. His body was too decomposed to determine the cause of death. He was in his thirties, and described as healthy. Although healthy, well nourished, well hydrated and well rested workers who take frequent water breaks will tolerate heat better than others, no one is immune to heat illness.

The South Carolina Agro Medical Program lists the following info on "relative humidity" and how it can impact working in the heat. On a 90 degree day when relative humidity is 70 percent, your body reacts to an "apparent temperature" of 106 degrees. Heat illness can result in heart attack, stroke, or death. Its advance is gradual and effects are subtle in the early stages, making it easy to miss, especially in labor intensive occupations, where workers are time pressured and focused on getting the work done. Early signs include cramping in arms and legs or abdomen, and fatigue.

A recent Tampa Tribune editorial laments the shortage of farm labor to bring in the citrus crop. This year's yield threatens to be one of the worst in a decade. What do they expect? The people who do this work are treated like criminals for trying to make an honest living. They labor in extreme heat, often for 12 - 14 hours a day, for pay that is challenging to live on, to say the least. There's speculation that many farm workers have fled this state, in the wake of the anti- immigrant saber rattling. In that case there are two choices: we can, in the words of Martin Luther King, "respect the dignity of labor" and proceed accordingly, or reap the harvest of our neglect.

AB 805, if passed, would be a good start. It should be extended to all states. The thing is, making a living shouldn't kill you.

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