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Heat-Related Deaths Among Crop Workers

June 19, 2008, 12:00 p.m. EST

OPERATOR:  Good afternoon and thank you all for holding.  At this time, your lines have been placed on listen only until we open up for questions and answers.  Please be advised today′s conference is being recorded.  If you have objections, you may disconnect at this time.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Ms. Bernadette Burden.  Please go ahead.

BERNADETTE BURDEN:  Good afternoon and welcome to the CDC Division of Media Relations MMWR tele-briefing.  We will be coming to you with a report this afternoon on heat related deaths among crop workers. 

We′re joined by Miss Dawn Castillo from CDC′s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.  She is from the Division of Safety Research.  This afternoon, Miss Castillo will discuss some new statistical data about crop worker fatalities from extreme heat and recommendations for employees to start heat stress management programs.  Upon her – the conclusion of her report, we will then open up for a brief question and answer period.  So now, I′d like to turn things over to Dawn Castillo.  Dawn? 

DAWN CASTILLO:  Good afternoon.  This report provides the results of new statistical analyses of heat related deaths among crop workers in the United States between 1992 and 2006 and provides a case which illustrates the circumstances that can lead to such deaths.  This analysis draws attention to high rates of heat related deaths among this group of workers compared to other occupations.  We hope that this analysis will prompt agricultural employers to insure that they have heat stress management plans in place as we enter the hot and humid summer months.  We also hope it will raise awareness among employers and crop workers about the need for increased vigilance regarding the need for heat illness prevention measures, such as insuring adequate fluid intake, breaks in shaded areas to allow workers to cool down and the need to provide prompt medical attention to workers who show signs of heat illness.  The source of the data was the census of fatal occupational injuries run by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is the most complete and comprehensive count available of work related injury deaths nationwide. 

Between 1992 and 2006, there were a total of 68 heat related deaths among crop workers accounting for 16 percent of all heat related deaths among all U.S. workers during this 15 year period.  The rates of heat related death among crop workers were about 20 times higher than the rates for the general workforce.  The high proportion of these deaths among foreign born workers in recent years is striking and suggests the need to insure that communications on the risk of heat related illnesses be in worker′s native languages. 

The data suggests that the rate of heat related deaths among crop workers might be increasing over time, however, this result needs to be viewed cautiously and more research is needed since the rates are based on small numbers and not statistically significant.  As well, we do not have data that would allow us to assess if this increase is a real increase or whether it might simply result from more recognition and reporting of these deaths.

The 2005 fatality of a Hispanic worker that is described in this report is based on an investigation conducted by the North Carolina Department of Labor. While the employer had provided safety training on pesticides, an important hazard for farm workers, specific training was not provided on recognizing and preventing heat illness.  There do not appear to be active monitoring of the workers given the dangerous heat conditions and medical attention was not promptly provided when the worker showed signs of potential heat illness.  While this is just one case, a previous case investigated by NIOSH found similar circumstances and media reports of a recent heat related death of a teenaged worker in California have suggested similar doubts in employer′s worker safety programs.  The circumstances of these isolated cases clearly cannot be assumed to occur for all cases, but they do illustrate where potential improvements can be made to improve the safety of crop workers.

There are a number of practical steps that employers can take to help prevent heat related illnesses and deaths among their workers that are detailed in safety information from NIOSH and other federal and state agencies.  These include training field supervisors and workers on recognizing, preventing and treating heat illness, assuring that workers are acclimated to the weather, providing fluids and encouraging and monitoring hydration, establishing work rest schedules appropriate for the heat conditions, insuring access to shade or cooling areas, monitoring the environment and workers during hot and humid weather, and providing prompt medical attention to workers showing signs of heat illness.

To wrap up, although heat related deaths of crop workers are relatively rare, such deaths are preventable and it is important to insure that appropriate steps are taken to insure that workers who toil to put food on our tables are not placed at unnecessary risk.  We hope that our analysis and recommendations will help to prompt measures by agricultural employers and others to help protect crop workers from heat related deaths and illnesses in the coming months.  Thank you.

BURDEN:  Thank you, Dawn.  Laura, we′re now going to open the lines up for questions please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  At this time if you would like to ask a question, please press star followed by one on your touchtone phone.  To withdraw your request, you may press star two.  And again, to ask a question, please press star one.  Our first question comes from Will Dunham with Reuters.  Please go ahead, sir.

WILL DUNHAM, REUTERS:  Hello, this is Will Dunham with Reuters in the Washington Bureau.  Just two things, could you describe, basically, how heat kills?  And then, could you say how many of those who died in these circumstances that are included in the report were foreign born?  And did you track immigrant status one way or the other?

CASTILLO:  OK.  People suffer heat related illness when the body′s temperature control system is overloaded.  The body normally cools itself by sweating, the sweat evaporates and cools the body.  In hot and humid temperatures, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from release heat quickly and very high body temperatures made damage the brain or other vital organs. 

In terms of the foreign born workers, for the period of the study from 1992 to 2006, we were unable to ascertain foreign birth status for about half of them.  However, in the last three years of the study, from 2003 to 2006, 71 percent of the crop workers who died of heat related illness were foreign born.  The data that we used to – for this analysis were from the census of fatal occupational injuries, immigration status is not included in that database.

WILL DUNHAM:  Thank you very much.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Mike Stobbe, The Associated Press.  Please go ahead.

MIKE STOBBE, THE ASSOCIATE PRESS:  Hi.  Thanks for taking the question.  I′m wondering on the heels of that last question, I′m wondering, is the proportion of foreign born workers who died from heat stroke, is that proportionate or disproportionate to the percentage of workers overall who are foreign born?  Do you see what I′m trying to get at?  I′m wondering if …

CASTILLO:  I do.

STOBBE:  OK.

CASTILLO:  The 71 percent of the heat related deaths among crop workers being foreign born is very different from what we typically see in work injury deaths. 

STOBBE:  How so? 

CASTILLO:  I don′t have the specific figure in front of me from recent analysis.  We can get back with you.

STOBBE:  OK.

CASTILLO:  I want to say it′s on the order of less than 10 percent.

STOBBE:  OK.  Thanks.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Bina Venkataraman “New York Times”.  Please go ahead.

BINA VENKATARAMAN, “NEW YORK TIMES”:  Hi, thanks for taking my call.  I′m wondering if you have any figures on heat related illnesses.  And if so, if you can share those with us.

CASTILLO:  In terms of those that don′t result in death?

VENKATARAMAN:  Yes.

CASTILLO:  No, we don′t. Those are very difficult numbers to come by for a number of reasons.  One of which is heat related illness is not – is often confused with other types of illnesses and so that′s, one, difficult to identify and we don′t have any national data systems in place that give us a really good handle on what the non fatal burden is.

VENKATARAMAN:  OK. And then just a quick follow up, so this – is there a study that pre-dates the ‘92 to 2006 study?  And if so, what was the number of heat related deaths from that study?

CASTILLO:  Yes. We′re not aware of any other studies that have been done previously that documented this type of death among crop workers specifically.

VENKATARAMAN:  Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Federica Narancio, “McClatchy Washington Bureau”.  Please go ahead.

FEDERICA NARANCIO, MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU:  Yes, hello.  Thank you for taking my call.  In the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported today that in the future years, there will be an increase in heat waves and hot days in the United States and I was wondering if there is concern that an increase in extreme weather conditions might result in more heat related deaths of workers.

CASTILLO:  The fact that there are projections that heat is going to increase and the extreme heat is a signal that we have to increase – we have to be aware of this and we have to recognize that we have workers who are working in outdoor climates and that it′s critical that we put steps in place so that we insure that when they are working under those extreme heat conditions, there are steps taken to protect them. 

NARANCIO: Thank you.

BURDEN: Laura, do we have any additional questions?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Liz Hernandez (ph), KUT News. Please go ahead.

LIZ HERNANDEZ, KUT NEWS: Hi, thanks for taking my question. I′m wondering if you could provide some perspective and compare this with other industries, specifically the construction industry, if this is particularly more the numbers are higher or the rates are higher in the farm workers?

CASTILLO:  Certainly.  To set the stage for this, for the period 1992 to 2006, there were 423 heat related deaths of workers in the United States.  And that calculated to a rate of about 0.02 deaths per 100,000 workers. Also, it′s 423 heat related deaths, the largest numbers of deaths within a specific industry were in the construction industry with 148 deaths, which represents 35 percent of all heat related deaths of workers in the United States for that period. The rate for heat related deaths among construction workers was 0.11 deaths per 100,000 and that′s a rate of – that′s more than five times higher than the rate for all workers combined. The next industry sector that accounted for the most deaths was agriculture, forestry, and fishing, which includes crop workers, which is the subject of our article. There were 102 deaths during that period which represented 24 percent of the deaths and the heat related death rate for workers in the agricultural industry was 0.16 deaths per 100,000 workers. That′s a rate that′s about one and a half times greater than for construction and a rate eight times higher than the rate when we look at all workers combined.

The rate that we′ve reported for crop workers, 0.39 deaths per 100,000 workers, is two and a half times greater than for the entire agriculture industry, three and a half times greater than for the construction industry, and nearly 20 times greater than for all workers.  Does that answer your question?

HERNANDEZ: Yes. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Once again, as a reminder, if you would like to ask a question, please press star followed by one. 

BURDEN: Do we have any additional questions, Laura?

OPERATOR: I′m not showing any additional questions at this time.

BURDEN: All right. We′d like to thank everyone for joining us this afternoon.  If you do have additional follow up questions related to this study or this week′s MMWR, please contact the CDC Division of Media Relations at 404-639-3286. Thank you, again.

OPERATOR:Thank you. This will conclude today′s conference call.  We thank you for your participation and you may now disconnect your lines.

END

####

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES

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