Giving a Voice to Agricultural Workers Impacted by Global Warming by Xiaochen Du

What is environmental justice?

Environmental impacts from landfills, factories, and mining have disproportionally affected the poor, minority, and tribal communities.[1] You might have heard about stories of hazardous waste landfills specifically constructed in predominantly African American communities in Warren County, NC, and superfund clean-up sites disproportionately located in poor and minority communities.[2] However, a less known but similarly important facet of environmental injustice stems from working, rather than living, conditions. Workers across the United States in mining, agriculture, and construction, who are also often people of color, are exposed to environmental hazards such as chemicals, air pollutants, high temperatures, or harmful UV rays.[3]

In particular, agricultural workers experience severe impacts as a result of climate change. With temperatures in the fruit-producing regions of Central Florida and California’s Central Valley hitting a record average temperature of 100 °F in July 2019, agricultural workers need a comprehensive statute at the federal level that directs employers to prevent heat injuries and deaths.[4] Ideally, this statute would contain a provision that enables agricultural workers to learn about their rights and voice out their concerns regarding their workplace. Hence, I propose creating a mobile application as part of the recently introduced Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act to ensure farmworkers are heard and to make environmental justice more democratic and participatory.

History and criticism of federal environmental justice policies

Despite the landmark Executive Order (EO) 12898 during the Clinton administration calling on all federal agencies to take into account environmental injustice in all rulemaking, federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have been slow and ineffective in implementing environmental justice initiatives.[5] One reason is that EO 12898 was too broad and sweeping, which made it challenging to define which populations are affected and to develop useful criteria for determining disproportionate impacts[6]. The EPA has relied on existing anti-discrimination and environmental laws to enforce environmental justice, rather than new legislation specific to the topic.[7] The degree of importance the EPA placed on environmental justice also varied from administration to administration. During the George W. Bush Administration, its own Inspector General accused the EPA of “undermining the very core of EO 12898 by shifting its implementation away from poor and minority communities.”[8]

In recent years, there’s gaining traction for more targeted bills in Congress to improve working conditions for communities of color. With their passage, these statutes might be able to achieve better results than relying on existing laws alone. The Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act was introduced in Congress in 2019. It would require the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to establish the first-ever federal heat stress standard. The legislation would mandate that workers in high heat environments have paid rest breaks in cooling shelters and access to water, and also limit how long a worker can labor in extreme heat areas.[9]

While the federal government has an important role to play in formulating policies and regulations, it is also unrealistic to expect the EPA and other federal agencies to monitor every corner of the country. Similarly, we can’t solely rely on government decisions at the federal and state levels to implement environmental justice. Environmental justice activists believe it is more important to “adopt a new paradigm of decision making altogether” that involves individuals and communities more effectively.[10] There have been some movements toward that in Plan EJ 2014, a comprehensive policy by the EPA to guide environmental justice.[11]

Technology-based enforcement mechanism

Building on the momentum, I recommend a technological approach to grant disadvantaged agricultural workers a voice in environmental justice. As part of the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, I suggest OSHA work with the EPA to create a mobile application for workers to log real-time resting data and to report any concerns or violations. While smartphone usage amongst lower-income groups has increased in recent years, almost 30% of the population earning less than $30,000 a year still do not have smartphones.[12] With the average wage of farmworkers falling in that category, we must cater the service to non-smartphone users.[13] It’s also understood that 80% of farmworkers are Hispanic.[14]  The mobile service will be initially rolled out in both Spanish and English, available both as a smartphone app on the Android platform and as an SMS-based service.


Such a mobile service will be relatively easy to implement, given the EPA previously created a more complicated app, EJSCREEN, a mapping tool used to identify minority or low-income populations and potential environmental quality issues.[15] The low cost of developing and maintaining the service using a small team can be amplified to a much larger audience. As a first step, we can roll out the service to the 400,000 farmworkers in California.[16] After gathering feedback on the system, we can proceed to Florida, which has another 100,000 farmworkers[17]. By then, we would have engaged more than half of the seasonal agricultural work force in the nation.[18] By ensuring workers have sufficient rest, we can prevent climate-change heat-related injuries and deaths, reduce medical costs, and ensure employers have more productive workers.

Overall, this addition of a mobile application will help to ensure that the Act will be effectively enforced and make a major step towards addressing the inequitable environmental impacts of global warming on lower-wage and minority workers in agricultural roles. Additionally, it will be a significant ground-up approach toward remedying environmental injustice by empowering agricultural workers to speak for themselves in the face of climate change.


[1] Konisky, David M. “Environmental Justice Delayed: Failed Promises, Hope for the Future.” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 58, no. 2 (2016): 4–15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rana, Huma, ed. “Which Professions Are Associated with Cancer Risk?: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.” Insight. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, August 1, 2019.

[4] Riley, Nano. “Farmworkers Are on the Frontlines of Climate Change. Can New Laws Protect Them?” Civil Eats, September 19, 2019.

[5] Binder, Denis, Colin Crawford, Eileen Gauna, M. Casey Jarman, Alice Kaswan, Bradford C. Mank, Catherine A. O’Neill, Clifford Rechtschaffen, and Robert RM Verchick. “A Survey of Federal Agency Response to President Clinton’s Executive Order No. 12898 on Environmental Justice.” Envtl. L. Rep. News & Analysis 31 (2001): 11133.

[6] Carroll, Daniel J, and Steven J Weber. EPA needs to consistently implement the intent of the Executive Order on Environmental Justice (2004).

[7] Konisky, “Environmental Justice Delayed”

[8] Carroll and Weber, EPA needs to consistently implement the intent of the Executive Order

[9] U.S. Congress, House, Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2019, HR 3668, 116th

Cong., 1st sess., introduced in House July 10, 2019,

[10] Cole, Luke W., and Sheila R. Foster. From the ground up: Environmental racism and the rise of the environmental justice movement. Vol. 34. NYU Press, 2001.

[11] Environmental Protection Agency. “Plan EJ 2014.” (2011).

[12] “Demographics of Mobile Device Ownership and Adoption in the United States.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Pew Research Center. Accessed March 31, 2020.

[13] Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Agricultural Workers,
on the Internet at

[14] Hernandez, Trish, and Susan Gabbard. Findings from the national agricultural workers survey (NAWS) 2015-2016: a demographic and employment profile of United States farmworkers. Vol. 13. JBS International, Research Report, 2019.

[15] “EJSCREEN: Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, August 2, 2018.

[16] Martin, Philip, Brandon Hooker, Muhammad Akhtar, and Marc Stockton. “How many workers are employed in California agriculture?.” California Agriculture 71, no. 1 (2016): 30-34.

[17] “Migrant Farmworker Housing.” Migrant Farmworker Housing | Florida Department of Health. Florida Department of Health, February 28, 2020.

[18] Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Agricultural Workers,
on the Internet at

2 thoughts on “Giving a Voice to Agricultural Workers Impacted by Global Warming by Xiaochen Du

  1. I found this blog post to be really interesting, especially since it takes such a modern and feasible approach (creating a mobile app) to combat an issue as pressing as environmental injustice. As mentioned in Xiaochen’s post, the federal government has unfortunately taken little steps to improve the lives of those who suffer from the inequitable impacts of climate change — and it happens to be the same group of minorities again and again. Thus, this solution seems to finally take action when the government won’t. However, when reading those post, I couldn’t help but wonder about the 30% of the population earning less than $30,000 who still don’t have smartphones — how will these people speak up? Furthermore, this platform undoubtedly gives people a place to express their discontent and demand for justice, but how can we ensure that their voices are heard and actually put to action? How can we ensure that governments will take this app seriously and not just overlook it as usual? Or that if the government does decide to enforce the Act that it won’t just become forgotten like EO 12898 during Clinton’s administration? I think Xiaochen’s post brings up a really important topic of finding a practical and easily accessible approach that could combat environmental justice. However, I also think that the federal government needs to take this problem a lot more seriously for it to have lasting impact.

  2. I found this blog to be particularly eye-opening, as we often don’t think about working conditions being related to the negative impacts of climate change. I appreciate how Xiaochen brought attention to this very important issue! It is unfortunate that the existing legislation that could address this issue is inadequate, but I’m not nearly surprised. The federal government seems to have a habit of passing sweeping legislation with limited amounts of definitions and ambiguous wording. I think using technology to combat the lack of enforcement is a really good idea, and it would provide a regulatory tool for the EPA that is far too often tasked with the massive task of enforcing broad legislation such as the one discussed here. It would not only ease the responsibilities of the EPA, but it would also provide the actual workers with an outlet to use their voices and advocate for themselves if necessary.
    Apps like the one proposed here could play a major role in regulating other environmental acts, and I am excited about the potential that it holds. However, I am somewhat concerned that it would not be completely representative. As Xiaochen mentioned, 30% of the population earning less than $30,000 a year do not have smartphones, and I wonder how they would have the equal opportunity to express their concerns about their working conditions. Additionally, if this type of app were to be used in the future for other environmental regulations, I worry that these same people without smartphones would not be able to speak up on other concerns. We must keep in mind that many environmental justice issues impact those with less financial ability, so we have to ensure that we find ways to hear everyone’s voice regardless of financial situation.
    Altogether, I really enjoyed this blog. I think the idea of utilizing technology to ensure the success of an act has a lot of potential, and I really like how this app emphasizes improving the conditions of those disproportionately impacted by climate change by giving those very people more power to speak for themselves.

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