The Impacts of a Changing Climate on Agricultural Workers
Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers, or MSAWs, are defined as individuals whose principal employment is in agriculture and have been employed within the last 24 months and have established temporary housing. Seasonal agricultural workers are those whose employment in agriculture is seasonal and do not meet the definition of a migratory agricultural worker. The MSAW umbrella also defines individuals or family members who are no longer employed in migratory or seasonal agricultural work due to age or disability1. Agriculture refers to all its branches, such as the crop production sector, animal production, support activities for crop production, and support activities for animal production.2 Agricultural workers are especially at risk of the negative health effects of a changing climate.
Due to the nature of agricultural work, there is growing concern about the health and safety of this population due to rising temperatures.
Exposure to extreme sun and heat can cause heat-related illnesses, like heat stroke, and can be deadly if not attended. MSAWs are most affected by extreme changes in climate as they work outdoors and often under poor working conditions.3 Heat stroke is caused by the body temperature rising rapidly to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher within a short time span of 10 to 15 minutes. Symptoms can include confusion, loss of consciousness, dryness of skin, and a very high body temperature that can lead to seizures or be fatal if not treated on time.4
Agricultural workers also commonly experience poor working conditions including limited access to water, shade, and resting periods. Many agricultural workers wear long-sleeved clothing to protect themselves from sun exposure; however, that often adds to the raising of the body temperature. Strenuous work in direct sunlight with no access to shade puts these workers at risk for heat stroke and dehydration.5
Limited access to information about climate-related health issues is a problem for MSAWs. Many agricultural workers have difficulties accessing health care, which can be due to working long hours without sufficient time off to seek services. MSAWs may also not be aware of the hours of operation of a clinic or are only available for evening and Sunday clinic visits. The following factors also create barriers to care for MSAWs:6
- Program ineligibility based on immigration status
- Fear of accessing healthcare because of their immigration status and/or a mistrust in the healthcare system
- Lack of information on health programs available for MSAWs
- Transportation barriers
- Language barriers
- Low health literacy
- Confusion with navigating the complex United States healthcare system
Many MSAWs lack an understanding of the services and resources available to them and are more likely not to seek preventative care and only attain emergency care at the last moment.
CHW Role in Addressing Climate
A Community Health Worker (CHW) is a trusted member of the community who empowers their peers through education and connections to health and social resources. CHWs are of the community and can create a trusting relationship with MSAWs through community outreach efforts and gaining an understanding of their unique needs.7 By understanding the barriers and limitations that MSAWs face, CHWs can provide them culturally appropriate information and be the bridge to much needed resources that promote health and well-being. The CHW model is deemed appropriate as they understand the local culture, language, and their local resources, which allows positive change and strengthens communities.
CHWs often have various roles when serving MSAWs. These can include work as a case manager, direct social worker, eligibility specialist, advocate, and health educator among others. CHWs can address the various barriers that MSAW communities face. CHWs can assist MSAWs with navigation of the U.S. health care system. They can help inform this population of the health programs available and identify the criteria needed to be eligible and apply. Many CHWs are also health educators and provide informational sessions to the MSAW communities regarding health disparities, preventative care, strategies, and tools to help mitigate the effects of climate in the agricultural workforce. In addition to providing culturally sensitive and occupationally relevant health education, CHWs can assist MSAWs in making healthcare and social services appointments, obtaining transportation, and improving health literacy through education and providing interpretation services. CHW interventions are critical for agricultural workers as they provide not only essential direct services to individuals but serve as a link between MSAWs and health and social resources that seem to be inaccessible.8