I am currently working on two projects to translate my research findings into concrete improvements for migrant farmworking communities.
1. Food Safety Rules and Worker Rehydration
Even as the state of California’s heat illness standard emphasizes “rest,” “water,” and “shade,” industry food safety rules frequently impede workers’ ability to rehydrate at work. I describe in the book how I first observed this conflict in 2013 when cantaloupe harvesting companies began prohibiting workers from bringing their own private water supplies into the fields (pp. 29-30; pp. 35-38). In order to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness from damaging consumer confidence and thereby protect their profits, the state’s cantaloupe producers—through their trade industry, the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board (CCAB)— devised audit checklists in 2012 specifying how cantaloupe should be grown, harvested, and packed and mandated audits for all major growers and harvesters. The checklists prohibit workers from brining “personal items” into the harvest area. Because these rules govern food quality in the state’s entire cantaloupe industry, the state and federal departments of agriculture were required to review and approve the checklists. Thus even as Cal-OSHA urges that workers drink every two hours in high heat conditions, the state department of agriculture has approved industry rules that make this more difficult.
Since I published the book, workers have reported that these restrictions have spread to other crops. As the large supermarket retail chains require growers and harvesting companies to undergo market-access audits, these companies have adopted similar restrictions on worker rehydration. A vast industry of third party auditors have developed audit schemes based on national and global food safety standards. While CCAB audit checklists prohibit workers from bringing “personal items” into the harvest area, a commonly used private audit scheme owned by Azzule, Inc. prohibits sources of “external contamination” (1). Thus a growing convergence in food safety rules quietly restricts workers’ rehydration with the goal of ensuring consumer safety.
I have been working with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and AgSafe to alert the state to the contradiction these food safety rules create. You can read my report to the state on this matter here.
1. Azzule Systems 2015. PrimusGFS Checklist—Version 2.1.2. Module 2, “Good Agricultural Practices Requirements.” November 12, 2015: 20. http://www.primusgfs.com/PDFs/PrimusGFS_Checklist_Module2_GAP_v2.1-2.pdf, accessed June 1, 2016
2. Gaps in the Heat Illness Surveillance System
It is well-known that the existing public health surveillance system undercounts deaths due to occupational heat exposure—due to gaps at the level of the hospital, the county coroner, and the county epidemiologists. Because deaths from heatstroke are often preceded by organ failure and heart attack, they are often underreported. Death certificates filled out in hospitals may record organ failure or heart failure as cause of death but fail to list heat as a contributing factor. Meanwhile, autopsies conducted by county coroners or Medical Examiners—often conducted more than 24 hours after the death—rarely detect the signs of heat illness from a clinical exam alone. Finally, if a farmworker returns home after heat stress and dies at home, the medics who arrive at the scene are unlikely to record heat as a contributing factor to the death.
I have begun a project documenting the myriad gaps in the public health surveillance systems that lead to the underreporting of deaths from heat exposure. Check back for more information on the project.