A farmworker’s death from heat exhaustion demonstrates the need to act, and health care’s role

by Emma Sirois

Mourners attend a vigil for Guatemalan-born farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez, 38, who died during the heat wave a week ago in Marion County while moving field irrigation lines, in St. Paul, Oregon, U.S. July 3, 2021. PCUN, Oregon’s Farmworker Union organized the vigil outside Ernst Nursery & Farms, the company where Perez was employed. (REUTERS/Alisha Jucevic)

By Emma Sirois

You may have heard of the devastation happening in the Pacific Northwest due to the recent heatwave. As someone living in the area, it’s hard to ignore. On June 27, temperatures in Portland, Ore. soared to 116 F, and areas of British Columbia, Canada experienced an unfathomable high of 121 F.

In Oregon, more than 100 deaths were caused by the recent heatwave — one in particular has led a community in mourning to call for justice. Sebastian Francisco Perez, a 38-year-old farmworker who had recently emigrated from Guatemala, collapsed and died of heat exhaustion on a farm in the Willamette valley south of Portland.

This climate-change tragedy is a clarion call for faster action to both reduce greenhouse gases and protect vulnerable communities.

Farmworkers in the United States are scantily protected by our current labor laws. Since the beginning of labor protections, our agricultural workforce has been excluded — from the right to organize, overtime pay, and many other workplace safety regulations. Their lack of protection is amplified by an immigration system which renders the estimated three million undocumented agricultural professionals who produce our food reluctant to challenge violations and call for safe working conditions out of fear of deportation for themselves and their families. These injustices set the stage for severely disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis on farmworkers.

The governors of western states hard hit by the recent heat waves are taking action to provide sensible and protective measures, but a broader approach is needed to universally protect farmworkers.

Health care institutions can use their purchasing power to support safe and fair working conditions for food and farmworkers. Health Care Without Harm has conducted a comprehensive review of third-party certifications and label claims to determine how they each address different aspects of farmworker health and safety. Labor and agriculture certifications that meet and ensure these criteria help hospitals utilize their influence and economic power to support resilience.

Health care professionals are considered by the general public to have the highest levels of ethics and honesty compared to any other profession. This level of trust makes health professionals ideal advocates for action on public policy. Clinicians and other health care workers can advocate for regulations to protect farmworkers from dangerous heat conditions and for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 which would give farmworkers a path to earn legal status.

Health care can play a critical role in protecting farmworkers, community health, and the planet through procurement and advocacy.

Emma Sirois is Health Care Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Health Care national program director.

Health Care Without Harm seeks to transform health care worldwide so the sector reduces its environmental footprint and becomes a leader in the global movement.