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Helping Field Workers Keep Their Cool

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Long, taxing days of manual labor are a fact of life for many agricultural field workers, and it is no secret that much of that work is done under searing summer skies. But high temperatures and solar rays are not just uncomfortable— during strenuous work, they can be hazardous or even deadly.

California state law requires that drinking water be made available to workers throughout the day, and most agricultural employers supply the water in conveniently located coolers. But according to Howard Rosenberg, a Cooperative Extension specialist in agricultural and resource economics, that’s often not enough. Through field studies and interviews, Rosenberg has found that workers tend to drink only when they are very thirsty, and the amount they consume does not meet their bodies’ needs.

“Heat stress problems in agricultural workplaces have both knowledge and structural roots,” Rosenberg says. “Even though ‘Drink enough water’ is a common admonition at training sessions, most workers, supervisors, and managers don’t really understand how the body generates and copes with excess heat, what the connection is between under-hydration and heat illness, or why relying on thirst as the cue to drink is risky.” In addition, Rosenberg says, there are real costs to a worker who indulges in a trip to the water cooler, including the physical effort of getting there and back, the possible perception of “slacking,” and foregone earnings for workers whose pay is based on their output.

Rosenberg has explored whether field workers would wear and benefit from hydration packs like those used by many athletes and U.S. soldiers.Whether that particular idea will fly has yet to be seen, but in the meantime, Rosenberg continues to promote the principle of reducing the “price” of hydration by keeping coolers closer to workers as they move, and encouraging farm operators to provide more education about heat stress and the body's hydration needs.

-Cyril Manning

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