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Over the last five years, Americans of Conscience has featured numerous actions supporting farmworkers who work in hazardously high temperatures without sufficient legal protection or access to water, shade, or breaks. On average, 43 farm workers die in the U.S. every year due to exposure.

In the Good News section of the Checklist, we recently celebrated a win for people whose work outdoors: the city council of Phoenix, Arizona unanimously passed an ordinance requiring heat protection for outdoor workers. 

Change is not solely dependent on elections, but also on the tenacity and dedication of ordinary citizens. Even when facing life-threatening issues, “slow and steady wins the race.” This recent win serves as a testament to the power of collective action and grassroots advocacy–and can shine a light on how we each can make positive changes happen.

The Reality in Phoenix

Last summer, Phoenix endured record-breaking heat, lasting 31 consecutive days with temperatures over 110F (43C). As a point of reference, a study showed that, if exposed to 95F temperatures in 100% humidity, a young adult could die in five to seven hours. The sweltering temperatures in Phoenix resulted in tragic fatalities, killing 340 people in the city, and 645 more in Maricopa County. Although no official agency currently collects data on work-related heat deaths, three out of four fatalities took place outdoors. 

Behind the statistics lies a stark reality: from airport employees and contractors to farmworkers, people of color and outdoor workers bear the brunt of extreme heat. 

According to the Business and Human Rights Center, “People of color are disproportionately impacted by extreme heat. More than 40% of all outdoor workers in the US are Black or Hispanic, while making up roughly 32% of the total population.” This means heat-related deaths hit these communities even harder.

It’s taken decades to get here

This win for worker’s rights happened on the heels of over a century of positive changes.

  • Early 1900s: Labor unions begin advocating for better working conditions, including protection from extreme heat in industries such as mining, manufacturing, and agriculture.
  • 1970: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established to ensure safe working conditions for employees.
  • 2005: California adopted the first statewide standards for heat illness prevention in the U.S., enhancing protections for outdoor workers.
  • 2010: A study published in the American Journal of Public Health highlighted the disproportionate impact of heat-related illnesses on migrant workers in Florida, contributing to increased awareness of the specific dangers this population faces.
  • 2013: The Heat Illness Prevention Network, a collaboration between government agencies, advocacy groups, and employers, launched a statewide outreach and education campaign in California to raise awareness of heat illness prevention strategies and resources for outdoor workers.

According to a statement from employment law firm, Littler, Phoenix’s new ordinance gives city contractors and subcontractors guidelines to provide essential protections for outdoor workers, including access to clean, cool drinking water, shaded areas, and effective acclimatization practices. Failure to comply can result in penalties for employers.

The Power of Collective Action

The victory in Phoenix was not achieved by one person alone. Only because of collaborative efforts between labor unions, community organizations, health agencies, and advocacy groups was sufficient positive pressure created to influence those with decision-making and oversight powers. The unanimous vote by the City Council is a testament to these groups’ effective strategies.

According to National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, “[Phoenix is] a model for how local governments can leverage their contracts to protect the workers who keep their communities running.” 

The nature of effective advocacy

If you’re like me, you may have assumed that change happens because of one call or one donation, but it requires several elements:

  • Collaboration
  • Research
  • Resources
  • Clear goals
  • Advocacy
  • Compromise
  • Tenacity

Ultimately, by joining forces, these diverse groups amplified the voices of workers, and their collective action drove positive change.

The struggle continues

At the national level, OSHA itself has not established rules for employers that protect outdoor workers from the dangers of extreme heat. Recently, Texas and Florida have banned any laws that would address protecting people who work outdoors. These realities highlight the importance of local and regional action in driving positive change. 

While change may be glacially slow at the federal level, citizen involvement in smaller regions is essential to improving communities and saving lives. The safer, more ethical standards in Phoenix create positive pressure for other regions to do likewise. 

Choose your issue

Whether your passion is environmental justice, getting out the vote, or reproductive rights (just to name a few), let the example of . Pick an issue you care about and get connected with groups already working for change. By lending your time and talents, you become part of something greater that can accomplish more than one person alone.

Do more than vote

Let the Phoenix community’s win inspire you to do likewise.

As we gear up for the November election, it’s crucial to remember that while elections matter, grassroots efforts also achieve positive change—possibly more effectively. When we choose to use our voices in concert with others, we harness the power of grassroots activism to create a future where all are safe and empowered.

How to stay engaged in solutions long-term

If you are overwhelmed by the number of issues you want to improve, joining our upcoming class: Sustaining Activism on Saturday, May 4 at 11am Eastern/8am Pacific/4pm GMT.

In 90 minutes, Jen Hofmann, AoCC Executive Director, will guide you through a series of thoughtful questions that will clarify what’s most important to you and create specific steps toward your activism goals. If you can’t attend live, a recorded version will be available. We use Equitable Pricing to ensure people of all economic levels can participate. We hope you’ll attend! Learn more here.