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Environment

Undocumented workers face serious consequences of prolonged exposure to high temperatures

Between 1992 and 2016 nearly 70,000 workers in the U.S. suffered serious health consequences due to environmental heat exposure. But that could be an undercount due to the unknown number of undocumented workers who suffer exposure in construction and farm jobs. Farmworkers are 20 times more likely to die from heat than the average worker, the highest mortality rate related to environmental heat for any job in any industry in the country.
26 Ago 2019 – 1:25 PM EDT

By Yinett Polanco, Andrés Echevarría and Andrea Sambucetti

Roendy Granillo arrived into the U.S. from Mexico along with his parents and siblings when he was a small child. As soon as he was old enough to work, he took a job in construction, a trade taught to him by his father.

One fateful Sunday in July of 2015, when Roendy was 25 years-old, an unexpected phone call from the company that employed him upended his plans; instead of going to his local Dallas church as was his custom, he would instead be installing floors in a new development. The construction site had no air-conditioning, and his boss allegedly did not allow water breaks, working conditions that would prove deadly in the sweltering mid-summer heat of Texas.

When Roendy’s mother, Graciela, received a phone call informing her that her son had collapsed at work due to the soaring temperatures, she could not have imagined how serious the situation was.

Anyone who has been in extreme heat knows that the conditions sometimes generate a mirage, an optical illusion that tricks our eyes into seeing something that isn’t there. In the last picture Roendy would ever post on Facebook, a ghostly image seemed to foretell his fate: his body appears “cloned,” with a translucent, ghostly version of himself hovering right behind him, as if bidding his family farewell from beyond. His parents treasure the picture, which they now see as a portent of the tragedy that would befall the family soon thereafter.

Between 1992 and 2016 nearly 70,000 workers in the U.S. suffered serious health consequenses due to environmental heat exposure. 783 of them died. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the organization tasked with protecting workers in the United States, says that number is likely an undercount, meaning the lethal danger posed by heat could be even higher than the official numbers indicate.


“The first symptoms of heat stroke include muscle aches and cramps, headaches, nausea, profuse sweat… basically fever-like symptoms without the underlying infection,” says Roxana Chicas, a Clinical Instructor at Emory University in Atlanta who has conducted extensive research on illneses related to heat exposure.


The reason the dangers of heat may be undercounted could be related to disproportionate number of undocumented people who work the jobs with the most exposure, like construction and farm work. Farmworkers are 20 times more likely to die from heat than the average worker, the highest mortality rate related to environmental heat for any job in any industry in the country.


Despite leaving a now-orphaned young daughter behind, Roendy’s family say they never received any compensation for his passing from his employer. His father, Gustavo Granillo, believes his son’s legal status is at least partly to blame for what happened, saying “he did not have papers, so his bosses took advantage of him, they didn’t let him rest and didn’t offer him the water he needed, and what’s more no one has been held accountable for what happened.”


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) each of the last 5 years have been among the 5 hottest years ever recorded since the U.S. began keeping track over a century ago. Data suggests that as temperatures rise, so do heat-related work fatalities.


“10% of Florida’s workforce suffers from kidney disease,” says Roxana Chicas, adding that half of the farmworkers that have participated in the study Emory University is conducting on the matter arrive for their morning test already dehydrated. By the end of the day, fully 80% lack proper hydration. “This (kidney disease) may well be among the first diseases directly related to climate change,” she says “this same pattern has been found in construction workers. The construction workers are not exposed to pesticides like farmworkers are, bolstering the study’s finding that heat is the culprit.”

Jose Delgado, a farmworker who picks sweet potatoes in Homestead, Florida, can attest to the dangers. Last summer, he was rushed to the hospital in grave condition due to kidney failure. Despite living in the U.S. for 20 years, he has not been able to fix his immigration status, and so depends on help from immigrant organizations to help pay for the medical treatment he will now require for the rest of his life.

Four years have passed since Roendy Granillo lost his life to heat, a death all the more tragic for how preventable it was. Although the pain of losing their son will never go away, his parents have turned that pain into fuel for their fight to spare others from suffering their son’s fate. They presented their case to legislators in their home city of Dallas and succeeded in helping to pass a municipal ordinance that requires workers be allowed a 15-minute respite for every 4 hours they work in the sun. No federal regultions exist to protect workers from environmental heat, although one bill aiming to do exactly that, the Asuncion Valdivia Heal Illness and Fatality Prevention act, named after a California farmworker who died from heat exposure, was introduced into the House of Representatives in July.

There are no state laws protecting workers from heat, and, only three states, California, Minnesota, and Washington, have guidelines in place to that end. But guidleines lack the power of a law to enforce compliance. Speaking as someone who has suffered the consequences of these dangerous working conditions first-hand, Jose Delgado laments that “for workers it’s very hard beacause employers don’t but protocols in place, or pay attention to the risk, so if we don’t demand it… the damage is done and we can’t even complain. It’s because we are undocumented, so no one cares.”


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