Exposed and Unprotected: The threat posed by climate change to U.S. agricultural workers

This Discussion Paper seeks to identify the array of potential policy avenues for tackling some of the risks posed by climate change to outdoor workers in the US. The work is based on a literature review and therefore reflects the focus areas of that literature, specifically the vulnerability of agricultural workers and the risks posed by extreme heat as well as climate change’s interactions with wildfire smoke and pesticide exposure. This work also identifies gaps in the literature and avenues for future study.

For agricultural workers, the impacts of extreme heat will compound with forecasted increases in wildfire smoke and pesticide use—the latter possibly increasing as heat renders crops more vulnerable to infection. The primary solutions to addressing wildfire smoke and pesticide use involve the wearing of PPE, which worsens the effects of heat exposure. Notably, there is no federal standard for wildfire smoke (or outdoor air quality)—though some states have implemented standards—and protections from pesticide exposure are widely noted as inadequate at the local and national level. This document provides a historical overview of how agricultural workers have been continuously excluded from federal labor standards and the ways in which this exclusion creates more acute vulnerability for workers to climate change and climate disaster.

Possible avenues and focus areas for policy change that were identified in the literature include: 1) creating a federal heat standard; 2) expanding OSHA protections to all agricultural workers—specifically eliminating the exclusion of small farms from any OSHA protections; 3) ensuring enforcement of existing (and to be developed) regulations; and 4) tackling the wider structural causes of vulnerability that extend beyond heat, notably lack of access to healthcare and poor-quality housing. A federal heat standard should account for humidity and include provisions mandating: breaks; access to water; access to shade; shifted work hours; acclimatization periods; and medical screenings. Regarding enforcement, the focus is on funding, staffing, surveillance, publication of incidents, and an assessment of whether current (and proposed) provisions are working.


Dr. Kaitlyn Henderson, James Morrissey



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