National | Media Release

Farm Workers Struggle with Extreme Heat: National Farmers Union Calls for Expanded Employment Protections and Climate Action

OTTAWA, ON—While most Canadians turn up the AC to keep cool amidst Central Canada’s first major heatwave of the year, farm workers nationwide are sweating in the fields to produce food and profit for Canada. Facing severe challenges that threaten their health, safety, and livelihoods, farmers and farm workers are speaking out about the hazards of extreme heat in their workplaces. The National Farmers Union (NFU) is highlighting the urgent need for expanded Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) protections, enhanced workers’ rights, and decisive climate action to address the escalating impacts of the climate crisis on agriculture and reduce fatality and injury rates in the sector.

Farm workers are especially vulnerable to extreme heat events—due to both the nature of their work and, for many, their precarious employment status. The ongoing heatwave has brought dangerous working conditions for farm workers such as Hannah Kaya. Kaya spends long hours outdoors and in greenhouses on an organic farm in Outaouais, QC, where temperatures are expected to reach a Humidex of 44 °C this week. 

“It’s not even technically summer yet, and we’re already roasting out in the fields. We’re doing everything we can to keep safe this week, but at a certain point you start to wonder – is there a limit to what we can adapt to?” says Kaya. “I’m a Canadian-born farm worker with a great employer, but I know not all farm workers are so lucky. Working in the heat is not just uncomfortable, it can be life-threatening. I’m advocating for labour standards and workplace safety not just for myself, but for the thousands of farm workers who are at risk right now.”

Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can lead to heat exhaustion, dehydration, and heatstroke, and, in the worst case, death. Despite the risks, many farm workers lack access to adequate rest periods, cooling facilities, and proper hydration, exacerbating these dangers. Migrant farm workers are especially at risk, as many fear deportation and retaliation if they speak out against unsafe conditions. 

“If we care at all about food security, the health and safety of farm workers must be made a national priority,” says Jenn Pfenning, President of the National Farmers Union and operator of Pfenning Organics, a 700-acre vegetable farm that employs 150 workers including migrant workers. “We need immediate action to expand worker protections and address the underlying climate crisis that is making these extreme heat events more frequent and severe.”

The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme heat is symptomatic of the broader climate crisis. Ontario’s Provincial Climate Change Impact Assessment predicts 55-60 days of extreme (over 30 °C) heat by 2080 if nothing is done to curb emissions. “That kind of heat will not only catastrophically impact our ability to grow certain crops, it will be deadly to workers and producers,” says Pfenning. 

In 2022, the federal government spent over $6 billion CAD in subsidies for the oil & gas industry. The federal government would have no trouble subsidising programs to (a) help agricultural employers meet the labour and infrastructure challenges of the climate crisis and (b) support producers to adapt to climate change, if it rapidly phased out subsidies to oil and gas.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s still time to protect our most vulnerable workers from the impacts of the climate crisis,” says Kaya. “But if we don’t act soon, I’m worried we won’t have a future where farming is safe and viable.”