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Heat Risk at Home

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by Gail Wadsworth and Vallerye Mosquera

The California Institute for Rural Studies, University of California, Davis and the Organización de Trabajadores Agrícolas de California recently completed a collaborative research project that focused on identifying the residential and community factors related to heat stress for farmworkers living in Stockton, California and the surrounding region. The goal of this research was to create a pilot tool for assessing community and residential site factors (i.e., those factors to which they are exposed outside of the agricultural work environment) that can exacerbate farmworkers’ exposure to heat and increase their risk of heat-related illness. Photo_1web

Community risk assessment tools, such as this, are commonly used for disaster planning and can be utilized to empower advocates and farmworkers themselves to recognize common vulnerabilities in their communities; make corrective measures when possible; and draw attention to or galvanize action around policy issues.   

Community risk assessments are employed by many community-based organizations around the world, and they are starting to be used to assess the risk of climate change in vulnerable populations. This type of assessment relies on a participatory method (i.e., a method that gains information and insight from the affected community members themselves) to assess hazards and vulnerabilities in order to allow communities to reduce risk. These tools can help address environmental challenges by directly engaging and learning from the community. Assessment tools are also being used in community health promotion efforts, especially related to preventable diseases. For example, in the case of obesity prevention, these tools enable practitioners and local residents to identify barriers in the built environment that inhibit physical activity and mobility.

There are many heat stress prevention strategies for farmworkers that focus on correcting individual behaviors (e.g., avoiding caffeinated beverages and bulky sweatshirts) or work place 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.

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Climate studies have increasingly shown that summer temperatures are projected to rise considerably in upcoming years (Patz et al., 2005; Schar et al., 2004). Therefore, urban and rural planning must take into account both the housing conditions of vulnerable populations (such as farmworkers) and the potential increased risk for heat stress posed by higher temperatures.  

In order to create the community assessment tool, we conducted interviews, residential site assessments, and an extensive literature review to determine the potential risks for heat-stress illness that farmworkers face before and after agricultural work. First, we interviewed twelve farmworkers and evaluated their ability to cool and hydrate after work as well as their access to transportation, health education information and health care resources. Then, we evaluated the various heat resistance and cooling features of the participating farmworkers’ residential structures. We also reviewed literature on structural and community risks in heat-related illness, including community and residential factors, issues with emergency response, and populations that are particularly susceptible to heat-stress related mortality. Finally, we compiled emergency heat plans throughout California, specifically San Joaquin County, to further assess the community facilities and resources available to farmworkers. Our initial research found emergency heat plans in several Central Valley counties, but these plans are quite variable and in general do not address the special needs of farm laborers or residents living in poverty who may not have access to electronic media or televisions. In addition, we could find no other tools for assessing risk of heat stress in communities rather than workplaces. 

The interviews showed a number of trends within the small group of farmworkers we contacted. We do not assume that the results from this research can be extended to the farmworker population as a whole and are reporting simply on the in-depth interviews that were completed. Twelve interviews were undertaken with the goal of discussing heat and housing issues with a cross section of workers in the Stockton area who lived in each of the different types of housing we identified as most common: urban apartments, urban houses, rural trailer parks, individual trailers in rural settings and transient housing. The following is a breakdown of the type and number of residential settings included in our study:
Trailer in trailer complex (owned, rent lot): 3

Trailer on company-owned ranch (free with work): 1 

Single-family apartment (rented): 2

Shared apartment (rented): 4 

Single-family house (rented): 1

Transient housing (lean-to constructed from found materials): 1

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The farmworker interviewees in our study considered housing affordability to be the principal consideration for determining where to live. Therefore, a fundamental need is the provision of low-income housing with living standards that allow farmworkers to cool down and lower their body temperatures after work. This is particularly important for farmworkers living in urban environments where safe, shaded areas may be harder to find or utilize. If factors within the community are such that farmworkers are not able to dissipate internal heat (e.g., lack of shade, air conditioning, and cool water) or unable to access necessary services (e.g., no telephone or transportation), these must be considered in addition to on-farm exposure factors. In addition to consideration of housing and community resources, we asked questions about travel to and from work, behaviors after work and awareness of both heat illness prevention, and methods of obtaining information. These added factors allowed us to consider the possibility of heat exposure before and after work; behaviors related to heat stress reduction or risk; how workers would address illness; and the best methods for dissemination of information. 

Many interviewees had experienced heat stress symptoms in the fields, but none of them had actually sought medical treatment. Some even continued work after having severe heat-related episodes: dizziness, vomiting, and light-headedness. They cited the potential lost wages or reprimands from site managers as reasons for continuing with their work in spite of their sickness. This issue is outside the scope of this study.

Yet, it is important to be reminded that this risk and vulnerability experienced in the fields could be heightened by traveling in cars and returning to homes without air conditioning or other sufficient cooling methods.  

The community assessment tool was created based on the empirical data, relevant literature, and emergency heat plans. However, the tool was formatted to be accessible to non-academic audiences, and it was translated into Spanish to increase its functionality in farmworker communities. With that in mind, we modified the tool based on input from potential users, such as community organizations, agencies, and residents. The tool can be used in identifying community and residential site factors that can increase a farmworker’s risk for heat stress illness. It can also be used to make suggestions for residential site modifications to mitigate risk and advocate for municipal and/or regional level policy changes to decrease risk or better respond to heat stress emergencies. 

The tool will soon be available for download on the CIRS website. We are also currently seeking funding to test the tool in communities throughout the state of California.

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