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Study highlights how heat exposure can affect workers 24/7

If you drive outside the city limits of Chicago, you will no doubt be amazed at how quickly the landscape transforms from urban to rural. In fact, you may not realize that we have a thriving agricultural industry here in Illinois with farmers growing all kinds of crops from bell peppers and asparagus to apples and peaches.

What you might also not realize is that vegetable, dairy and sod farms, fruit orchards and nurseries all employ roughly 20,800 migrant farm workers on a seasonal basis here in the Land of Lincoln.

In fact, these employers will likely want to pay careful attention to a recently published study in the American Journal of Public Health examining how the hot conditions in which many migrant farm workers must work on a daily basis can continue to plague them even in their off-hours and even elevate their risks of serious work injuries.

Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center set out to study the heat indexes found within the living quarters (common and sleeping rooms of houses, barracks, trailers, etc.) of migrant farm workers. Specifically, they examined 170 farm work camps spread out among 16 counties in North Carolina during the summer of 2010.

They found that nearly 80 percent of workers surveyed reported having electric fans in their sleeping rooms and that 55 percent reported no air conditioning whatsoever. More significantly, they found that the heat index in the majority of common rooms and sleeping rooms was well above the danger threshold.

Why is this finding so disconcerting?

"If you sleep in a very hot room, you don't sleep well and you don't get rested so the quality of sleep is compromised," explained Prof. Sara Quandt, the primary author of the study. "For workers, the concern is what happens in the daytime during work hours while using tools and machinery. They're in situations where they have to make decisions that can affect safety, but if they're drowsy, this can be an issue."

Here's hoping that employers here in Illinois -- and across the nation -- recognize this danger and provide their employees with the necessary cooling equipment to stay safe.

Source: EHS Today, "Heat lingers for farm workers even after quitting time," Laura Walter, June 17, 2013; Illinois Migrant Council, "Illinois farmworkers," Jan. 2013

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