Heat-related illnesses pose significant dangers to workers in various occupations, including those in the food supply chain and agriculture. The scorching sun and long hours outdoors increase the risk of conditions like heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration and fainting. Shockingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that approximately 618 people in the United States die from extreme heat each year.
Fortunately, as a worker, you have rights and protections under the law. The Department of Labor offers valuable resources and programs, particularly for agricultural workers laboring in the field. Here are some of the key protections you should know about to stay cool on the job:
Field sanitation for agricultural workers
The law requires that employers provide clean drinking water, toilets and handwashing facilities to prevent illnesses. The law also protects you from retaliation if you voice concerns or file complaints about sanitation issues. Employers who violate these laws may face fines or other legal consequences. Remember, you have the right to request access to sanitary facilities and cooperate with related investigations.
Family and Medical Leave Act
Regardless of your occupation, if you work for a covered employer and experience heat-related illness or injury, you may qualify for leave under the FMLA. This law allows eligible workers to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave per year for serious health conditions.
Nursing employees, including those in field work and agriculture, have the right to reasonable break time to pump breast milk in a private space other than a bathroom.
Child labor laws
Federal child labor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act ensure that indoor and outdoor work is safe and does not harm children’s health or educational opportunities. State and local laws may have higher standards, requiring adherence to more stringent regulations, however, when the federal law has a higher standard, then employers must comply with federal law.
Additionally, victims of labor trafficking are sometimes forced to work in extremely hot environmental conditions. Preventing heat-related illnesses involves recognizing risk factors by employers and workers. No one has the right to compromise your health by denying you access to water or healthcare due to heat-related issues. If someone’s actions negatively impact your safety or well-being, or restrict your freedom to move, you may be a victim of human trafficking. It is crucial to report such instances promptly. The Wage and Hour Division collaborates with other agencies, referring potential cases of human trafficking and calculating restitution for victims upon request from the Department of Justice. If you suspect human trafficking or need assistance, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Even if you don’t meet the criteria for these protections, government resources are available to address your concerns about heat-related safety at work. As a worker, you can reach out to the following agencies for information and assistance:
Together, let us prioritize the health and safety of agricultural workers and acknowledge their indispensable contributions to our food system.