The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s ongoing, nationwide Heat Campaign led me to reflect on my personal experience as a potato field worker in the 1980s. Although, my current work as an OSHA compliance officer affords an air-conditioned workplace, back then I worked long hours, from seven in the morning till ten at night, in the summer heat.
“Water, rest, shade”, simple and easy as it sounds, is not easily attainable by those working under the sun. For one thing, as my own experience informs me, there is almost no shade or shelter when workers are working in the field. Many times, employers are reluctant to set up a shelter for workers. Moreover, if you don’t bring your own water, enough and plenty of it, rarely will you be provided with some. In other words, we, as workers, have to take good care of ourselves. As for rest, back at that time, we usually got only 20 or 30 minute lunch breaks whenever our supervisors felt hungry. It wasn’t even in our control.
This is the experience that I obtained from working in a potato field. I believe this could also be applied to other industries, such as landscape and construction, where workers get so exhausted from the heat, without even realizing they are at that point.
I remember people asking me: “why don’t you complain?” Complain? Most workers never dare to think of it. If you didn’t work hard, employers would find some else to replace us and we would end up losing our jobs. Nobody could afford that.
But there lies the beauty of the Heat Campaign. By advocating a simple message: “Water, Rest, Shade”, we are telling outdoor workers that they should speak up for themselves and ask for what they deserve. Without a doubt, a large of portion of responsibility lies with employers also when it comes to providing workers with precautions to fight against heat. Now, bearing the straightforward message of our heat campaign in mind, employees should feel empowered to ask for preventative measures when they are not available. In addition, OSHA has several tools and resources available to help keep workers safe throughout the season.
Editor’s Note: The Author, Magnolia (Maggie) Torres is a compliance officer with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Philadelphia District Office.