There are many heat stress prevention strategies for farmworkers that focus on correcting either individual behaviors (e.g., avoiding caffeinated beverages and bulky sweatshirts) or workplace conditions (e.g., providing shade and regular break periods). Yet, few heat stress-specific health plans take into consideration the conditions of the built and natural environment that farmworkers are returning to at the end of a long day in the fields.

Double Invisibility: Forgotten in the Fields and at Home

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There are many heat stress prevention strategies for farmworkers that focus on correcting either individual behaviors (e.g., avoiding caffeinated beverages and bulky sweatshirts) or workplace conditions (e.g., providing shade and regular break periods). Yet, few heat stress-specific health plans take into consideration the conditions of the built and natural environment that farmworkers are returning to at the end of a long day in the fields.

As part of a comprehensive study to develop a Heat Stress Community Assessment Tool in farmworker communities, researchers and community organizers with UC Davis, the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), and la Organizacion de Trabajadores Agricolas de California (OTAC) interviewed farmworkers in their homes and compiled a photo journal of their living conditions. The photos reveal the environmental and physical factors of their residential settings that could compound their risk for heat stress illness. The final recommendations from the study are still being developed, but the photo journal gives a sense of the conditions that farmworkers in the California Central Valley are facing before and after they work in the fields.

Before proceeding, it is important to note that all the interviewees in this study considered cost effectiveness to be the principal consideration in choosing a residence. Shade trees and size were important, but the real determinant was whether or not they could afford to live there. Thus, the tendency would be to ensure that low-income housing provides living standards that allow farmworkers to cool down and decompress once they are back home. This is particularly important for farmworkers living in urban environments where safe, shaded areas may be harder to find or utilize.

 

Cooling Devices

Broken Air Conditioning Window Unit

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This image shows a broken Air Conditioning window unit located in a farmworker’s trailer in a rural setting. The photo is emblematic of similar units in both rural and urban housing that are either dysfunctional or completely inoperative. In this particular trailer, there were five children and two adults living in the space with two bedrooms.

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Additionally, at least one farmworker family we interviewed indicated that they were unable to use a self-purchased air conditioning window unit in their second floor Stockton apartment because the apartment manager saw it as a safety hazard.


Central Air Conditioning (But Who Can Pay?)

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Only two of the 12 farmworkers in our study had access to central heat and air conditioning at their residences. However, both interviewees indicated that they rarely used the central air conditioning due to the high utility costs. One interviewee even stated that they had issues with the system the entire summer that were not addressed by the housing manager until the end of the growing season when heat was not an issue.

 

Fans

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Whether they lived in the city or the country, electric fans were the primary cooling device used in the homes of farmworkers in our study. The primary difference between use of fans in urban and rural settings was the perceived safety of the rural environment that enabled farmworkers to feel more comfortable opening windows at night and using the fans to circulate air through their homes.

 

Shade

Shade Trees 

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The presence of shade trees was more common in rural settings, while there was only one urban apartment in our study that benefited from large shade trees. In rural environments, shade trees rarely provided shade for the homes themselves, but they often offered an outdoor space for residents to cool off during peak temperatures. For urban apartments, the residents typically had to rely on spaces apart from their residences for shaded areas.

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However, even if there was a park nearby, the farmworkers typically did not use them during the week. There was the general perception that they were not safe at night (when they would return from work). One migrant farmworker used a small shade tree on the sidewalk as refuge during the hottest days, but even he indicated that he felt unsafe when he was there and could not fully relax (no matter the time of day).

 

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Constructed/Improvisational Shade

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Despite the lack of natural shade provided in residences, farmworkers created their own "improvisational shade" through modifications to their residences. The materials used were plastic tarp or mesh fabric. This is an option for those who own trailers in rural environments, but it is mostly off limits to those who rent apartments or houses.

 

Curtains

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Without reliable cooling systems, many farmworkers in the study rely on closed curtains to decrease the effect of high temperatures in their homes. The tactic is cost-efficient but is often not enough to substantially reduce the heat felt inside the home.

 

Refrigeration

Unreliable or Nonexistent

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Although most of the interviewees had some mode of refrigeration, at least two of the interviewees did not have access to reliable refrigeration. One farmworker living in a rural setting, stored food in an outdoor, unplugged refrigerator. Another farmworker earned so little as a day laborer in the fields that he was unable to maintain the rent for a garage he shared with five other people, and he was forced to construct shelter in a drainage ditch. He kept water in gallon jugs under a lean-to built from found materials.                                                       

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Funding for this project is provided by the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP).

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Vallerye Mosquera is a master’s student in Community and Regional Development at UC Davis. At UCD, she has served as a graduate student researcher for a study of immigrant and refugee serving organizations in the Sacramento region. She is also a part-time Bilingual Sexual Assault Victim Advocate for the Sexual Assault Domestic Violence Center in Yolo County. Prior to attending UC Davis, her work experience included outreach and environmental advocacy to Spanish-speaking communities in the United States and Latin America. Between 2005 and 2006, Vallerye earned a Bachelor’s degree in biology from the New College of Florida which led to a Fulbright research scholarship in Quito, Ecuador where she was responsible for evaluating social and environmental policies related to solid waste disposal. Mrs. Mosquera is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.

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