Scientists call for using more accurate metrics to gauge extreme heat after farmworker’s death in Nash County

Five altars honor five migrant farm workers who died in North Carolina at Bicentennial Mall in Raleigh on Nov. 3, 2023. Credit: Anne Blythe

By Anne Blythe

March 19, 2024

State investigators accused a Nash County farm of a “willful serious” violation of NC labor law, following a 29-year-old migrant worker’s death in September 2023.

There’s no doubt it was hot outdoors the day José Arturo Gónzalez Mendoza died after falling ill while harvesting sweet potatoes from a Barnes Farming field in Nash County.

The heat index, which factors in humidity with the temperature, measured 96 in that part of eastern North Carolina on Sept. 5, 2023.

Scientists say there are more modern metrics that can measure the wind speed and direct sunlight at any given place that would be even more meaningful to assess risks of outdoor activity during periods of extreme heat.

Gónzalez Mendoza, a farmworker from Mexico, had been working in direct sunlight on that late summer day when he began showing signs of heat-related illness, according to results of a state Labor Department investigation released last week.

The 29-year-old migrant worker began sweating profusely, and he seemed confused and had difficulty walking, talking and breathing, investigators wrote in the narratives accompanying three citations against Barnes Farming. He lost consciousness and died approximately an hour later while still at the field.

Management representatives “never summoned professional services or provided first aid treatment,” Labor Department investigators found.

“Another employee finally called 911 approximately 50 minutes after the farmworker first exhibited signs and symptoms of a medical emergency,” they further contended. “He went into cardiac arrest prior to EMS arrival and was pronounced deceased on scene.”

Citations issued by the labor department on March 4 accused Barnes Farming of a “willful serious” violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of North Carolina and two alleged “serious” violations, resulting in a total penalty of $187,509.

Efforts by NC Health News to get a response from Barnes Farming were unsuccessful. The company has until March 22 to either contest the allegations with the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission of North Carolina or request an informal conference with the state Labor Department.

The most serious allegations accuse the employer of failing to “implement a work/rest schedule for high-heat conditions.” Workers were given, at most, one scheduled five-minute break during the six-hour workday, according to the citation and notification of penalty.

If workers took breaks, it often was in a bus that provided little heat relief, the investigators found. It had no air conditioning and was parked in a field in direct sunlight.

There were no shaded or cool areas provided, nor was there an adequate supply of drinking water for employees, the citation further alleges.

High temperatures can lead to a host of health risks such as heat stroke and cardiovascular death. Dehydration can contribute to diminished kidney function.

“While a 10-gallon cooler of water was provided,” the citation states, “there were no cups, so employees had to drink the water by placing their head under the spigot.”

shows a pair of hands holding a weird-looking box-shaped apparatus with a black rubber bulb on top. There's also a white cylinder with a stack of fins on top of the box. The box is used to measure extreme heat.
Wet bulb temperature is measured by a thermometer wrapped in a wet cloth, simulating the cooling effect of sweat. The thermometer is also exposed to the sun, accounting for how it feels in the sunlight. Black globe temperature is measured with the thermometer inside a black globe, replicating how hot it feels in the sunlight.

A black flag day

The death of Gónzalez Mendoza, a husband and father of two sons, prompted migrant workers to gather in Raleigh last year to advocate for more protections from extreme heat in agricultural fields and other workplaces.

The workers and their advocates pointed out that most heat-related problems are preventable, especially when employers implement workplace standards to guard against the extreme temperatures that are becoming more common because of climate change.

Ashley Ward, director of the Heat Policy Innovation Hub at Duke University, has been trying to raise awareness about the need to adjust labor practices and housing standards as 90-plus degree days become the norm.

The wet bulb globe temperature, or WBGT, is a better gauge of outdoor working conditions than the heat index, Ward said. In addition to the temperature and humidity, wet bulb thermometers consider wind speed and solar radiation.

“On the day of Jose’s death, the RDU and Rocky Mount airports measured the wet bulb globe temperature as black flag at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.,” Ward told NC Health News. “This means all outdoor activities should stop. In fact, it was 2 degrees above black flag thresholds.”

On black flag days, when the wet bulb globe temperature is 90 and above, Marines suspend physical training and strenuous exercise, as do other branches of the military.

On the day that Gónzalez Mendoza died, Ward pointed out, “it was not only hot and humid, but there was little wind/air movement and likely little cloud cover to provide relief from the sun. It was a terrible combination.”

“If you put that into the context of the working conditions as described in reports — no cups for water, an old bus to cool off in, et cetera, it is easy to see how that situation turned deadly very quickly,” she added. “I imagine without wind, that bus was not a shade or shelter, but an oven.”

Ward agreed that there should be better worker protections adopted, but she said they should be grounded in the latest science.

“We rely too heavily on heat index when we have better metrics for heat exposure,” Ward said.

New heat protections?

Braxton Winston, a Democrat running for labor commissioner in the November 2024 elections, told NC Health News that he would use the rule-making process to try to create a heat safety standard that would offer more protections to not only agricultural workers, but also to employees in other industries.

Luke Farley, the Republican seeking the post, has touted a different approach that relies on existing law. He told the News & Observer that workers are already protected from heat by language in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

Both candidates say that good communication is key so workers are aware of hazards and know the symptoms of heat illness.

Last summer, President Joe Biden announced that he planned to use federal tools to make working conditions better for farmworkers and laborers feeling the brunt of extreme heat. That was at a time when there was much publicity about heat domes in the Southwest and hot-tub-like temperatures in the ocean off southern Florida.

Biden issued a hazard alert for heat, which ramped up protections for workers, and urged the federal Department of Labor to step up enforcement against employers who were not complying.

A report released this month on heat-related deaths in 2023 found that 645 people died in Maricopa County, Arizona, where Phoenix is located, because of the extreme temperatures. That was a 52 percent jump from 2022, according to the report, when 425 deaths were heat-related.

The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, founded in 2019, released a report, “Extreme Heat: The Economic and Social Consequences for the United States,” that estimated that by 2050 nearly 60,000 Americans could die that year from heat-related health conditions.

In the absence of clear federal, state and local law, some municipalities have reacted to calls for change by adopting their own standards for outdoor work and temperature-related restrictions.

In North Carolina, workers advocating for change contend that while some people might say a rule to protect workers from laboring in extreme heat might be costly, that not doing anything will cost employers too.

Corrective actions

In their citations, the state Labor Department recommended corrective actions for Barnes Farming, a company owned by Johnny Barnes, the husband of N.C. lawmaker Lisa Barnes, a Republican state senator and Nash County native.

The department encouraged the farm to create and implement emergency response procedures to respond to medical emergencies in a more timely manner.

That would include having medical supplies on site, and training workers in how to call emergency dispatchers and when.

Graphic shows how to measure the heat index using a black bulb thermometer. The calculation: 10% of the air temperature plus 70 percent of natural wet bulb temperature plus 20 percent of black bulb temp yields the wet bulb globe temperature.
Image used with permission.

The department also suggests developing an acclimatization program for new employees so they are not hired one day and sent out to sweltering fields the next without access to water and other necessities to help them cool down.

Gonzalez Mendoza had been working at the farm on a H-2A temporary visa for agricultural workers for less than two weeks before his death.

The NC Farmworker Institute Summit is in Chapel Hill on Thursday and will focus on farmworker health and environmental challenges. Its theme this year is “Harvesting Justice: Farmworker Health and the Climate Crisis.”

As farmers adapt and cut costs to help make up climate-related losses, workers are at risk. The event, which is sold out, will “explore strategies for mitigating the impact of environmental factors on farmworker well-being and promoting equitable access to information, healthcare, disaster relief, legal support and other remedies.”

Climate change also has put many farms across North Carolina at risk for prolonged droughts, wildfires, more severe hurricanes and frequent floods, as well as extended periods of extreme heat.

Not sitting on the sidelines

Ward is heartened by all the discussions on extreme heat across the country.

North Carolina has not been sitting on the sidelines, she added.

She has been working with the state Department of Health and Human Services and the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency to create heat action plans.

They will include guidance to help lower health risks during periods of extreme heat, such as immersing feet and arms in water to cool down the body temperature.

“Pretty soon every county will have access to a heat mitigation plan,” Ward said. North Carolina is ahead of many states, she said, “but we have a long way to go.”

This article first appeared on North Carolina Health News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.Scientists call for using more accurate metrics to gauge extreme heat after farmworker’s death in Nash CountyScientists call for using more accurate metrics to gauge extreme heat after farmworker’s death in Nash County

Author

  • Anne Blythe

    Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.

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