How Valley farmers, organizations are trying to protect farmworkers amid heat, smoke, and COVID-19

N95 respirators are the only masks which can filter out PM 2.5 - tiny particulate matter.
FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. (KFSN) -- Essential agriculture workers continue to toil through a pandemic, a dangerous heatwave, and now unhealthy air quality due to wildfires around the state.

Farm laborers can't work remotely. Once a crop comes into season, it needs to be picked.

But the sight of crews from the Valley, to the Central Coast and northern California, working in smoky conditions at a time when everyone else is urged to stay indoors is troubling to groups like the United Farm Workers.

UFW Secretary-Treasurer Armando Elenes said, "It makes you wonder what people are doing out there. Right now we're watching videos of workers harvesting wine grapes while plumes of smoke are rising in the background."

We saw some Valley ag workers not wearing masks at all.

N95 respirators are the only masks which can filter out PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter which can get into our lungs, even our bloodstream, and cause health issues.

For farmers, it has been difficult finding the masks since the COVID-19 pandemic began so a free mask giveaway at the Fresno County Farm Bureau came at the perfect time.

Mike Lawson of OFR Inc. in Kingsburg said, "It helps a lot. The protection for the workers is amazing. They have a tough job as it is."

The state is trying to protect workers in the ag industry against the poor air quality. It has made one million N95 masks available. 200,000 more surgical masks are also being shipped out to Fresno County.

But to protect its workforce, growers are required to keep close tabs on the Air Quality Index.

Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen explained, "Any time that we see the AQI go above that 151, employers are automatically required to offer respirators, which the most common one is the N95 to their employees."

Several Valley counties topped AQIs of 151 this week, meaning the air quality reached an unhealthy stage.

Some farms have shortened the workday due to the high heat. Others have altered schedules so crews can work at night harvesting wine grapes.

Lawson said, "I have a lot of respect for those who work in the fields and we try to do everything we can to protect them."

It's been a tough row to hoe for farm laborers. But they continue to work through the coronavirus pandemic, extreme heat, and now unhealthy air quality.

Elenes said, "We're seeing some that are not comfortable out of the fear they could get sick with no health insurance so therefore it's even tougher."

Over 12,000 N95 masks were picked up. The Farm Bureau will continue handing them out to local growers next week.
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