Harvest of Shame: Deadly Heat Edition – Home Interrupted

In July of 2023, Efraín López García died picking fruit on a farm in Homestead, Florida. According to his family, extreme heat caused his death. At the same time, the Florida legislature was considering a bill banning local governments from enacting safety regulations to protect farmworkers. On April 12, Governor Ron DeSantis signed that bill into law.

About 75 percent of farmworkers in the United States are immigrants. And according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, there are only five states with laws protecting farm workers and other outdoor workers from extreme heat.

Allison Salerno reports on community organizations and scientists who are working with farmworkers to safeguard themselves from extreme heat in the absence of government protections.

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Climate change makes farm work—an already tough job—more dangerous

by Allison Salerno

Maria Pineda waters tomato plants in the community huerta. Photo credit: Allison Salerno.

Maria Pineda, an immigrant from El Salvador, waters tomato plants in a small greenhouse in a huerta or community garden in Apopka, Florida. She volunteers her time here, and enjoys it. Time tending to plants has a far different feel from the farm work she used to do for decades. The unrelenting heat and exposure to pesticides damaged her health and forced her to quit. 

As global temperatures rise, farm work—already one of the toughest and poorest paying jobs in the United States—is becoming more dangerous. Farmworkers in the United States make on average $17,500 to $20,000 a year. Many farmworkers in the U.S. are immigrants from Mexico and Central America and a significant portion of them are undocumented. That precarious legal status means they are limited in what they can do to advocate for better working conditions, such as rest and water breaks in the unrelenting heat.

The death of farmworker Efraín Lopez Garcia, 29, in Homestead, Florida last summer further highlighted the need for farmworker protections in Florida. The Guatemalan immigrant died picking longan, a tropical fruit, during a 46-day run of record-breaking heat in Florida, when temperatures topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

In Florida, there are no laws—either local, statewide or federal—that protect farmworkers from heat stress. Days after Efraín’s death, commissioners in Miami-Dade County proposed an ordinance that would have made it the nation’s only local government to protect outdoor workers from the heat. It would have required employers in Miami-Dade to have first aid and emergency procedures. And it would have required that workers be given water and rest breaks in the shade—10 minutes every two hours on very hot days. But that local bill went nowhere. Partly because the county commissioners worried the Florida legislature would tell them they couldn’t do it. Then on April 12, 2024, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law to prevent any local government from passing heat stress laws.

Until recently, Maria Pineda worked with the Farmworker Association of Florida, helping train farmworkers to stay safe in the heat. Photo credit: Allison Salerno.

In the absence of government protections, advocates are stepping in. Nonprofit organizations, such as the Farmworkers Association of Florida, are trying to educate workers on how to protect themselves from extreme heat. They hold workshops to let workers know about the need to stay hydrated and teach them the warning signs of heat stress.

Dr. Roxana Chicas leads a research team from Emory University in Georgia that has been testing various interventions for farmworkers to cope with extreme heat. When they gave farmworkers sensors to swallow to capture their internal temperatures every 30 seconds, they discovered the workers’ temperatures were reaching dangerously high levels just a few hours into their shift. The stakes are high: the team discovered that heat-stressed workers were experiencing acute kidney damage just in the course of one work shift.

Chicas’ team tried a series of interventions to help farmworkers cope. They tested cooling vests with ice packs, but the vests proved too bulky and cumbersome for physical laborers. More effective and nonintrusive solutions included putting cooling bandanas around their necks and providing water with electrolytes.

Elena Contreras (standing) and her mother Mirella Contreras in the community huerta. Elena is an undergraduate student who hopes to become a psychiatrist. Mirella is a former migrant farmworker who now is an organizer for the Farmworker Association of Florida. Photo credit: Allison Salerno.

“They are at the front line of a lot of climate change,” Chicas said. “How sad is it that they’re the ones that are picking the fruits and vegetables that we eat, but have little left for themselves.”


Hosted by Iggy Monda

Story Produced by Allison Salerno

Edited by John Rudolph, Quincy Surasmith, and Iggy Monda

Fact Checking by Julie Schwietert Collazo

Engineering by Jocelyn Gonzales

Theme music by Fareed Sajan

Additional music: Tin by Farrell Wooten

“Home, Interrupted” show logo by Daniel Robles

Feet in 2 Worlds is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Fernandez Pave the Way Foundation, an anonymous donor, and contributors to our annual NewsMatch campaign.

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AboutAllison Salerno
Allison Salerno is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Athens, Georgia. She's a seasoned reporter, whose work has been published in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She has also produced audio stories about farming, food, and social innovation, for the podcasts of America's Test Kitchen and Southern Foodways Alliance, as well as her local NPR staton. You can find Allison on Facebook, X and Instagram @allisonbsalerno.