Roxana Chicas, PhD, RN
Growing up in a community of Central American immigrants in the Atlanta area, Roxana Chicas often overheard the adults talk about their working conditions.
“I didn’t quite understand it, but I knew that workers who worked outdoors have harsh work and are injury-prone,” Chicas recalls. “And I would just hear them talk about how hot it was.”
Chicas, who came to the United States from El Salvador at the age of four, understands it well now. She has a doctorate in nursing, is an assistant professor of nursing at Emory University in Atlanta, and focuses her research and outreach on health risks faced by outdoor workers, notably from heat, which is made worse by the climate crisis.
Those of us fortunate enough to work in air conditioning, where the harshest injury might be a paper cut, don’t often think about these lives. Let’s say there’s a new housing development. “You have the construction workers who are outdoors on the street, and then you have residential people who are running — or they just go out for a jog or a stroll,” Chicas says. “It’s leisure, right?”
For the workers, it is not. It can be life-threatening. And the danger is not just in construction. Whether we think about it or not, delivery trucks that carry internet-ordered packages to our door are not air-conditioned, and the drivers can get so overheated they pass out, Chicas says. It’s similar with agricultural workers. “There are three million agricultural workers who are on the front line of the climate crisis,” she says. “All of us benefit from agricultural workers three times a day.”
Chicas does much of her research with the Farmworker Association of Florida, a membership organization with five offices. She can meet with farmworkers at the offices, and thus not go on owners’ land, which could identify workers to the owners. She can collect blood and urine samples that can alert the workers to health conditions. And she can fit the workers with equipment that can monitor core body temperature and heart rate, which they can wear under their clothing as they work.
Chicas says people who work outside are well aware it’s getting hotter but lack the cultural presence to help them advocate for change. So she says she does it, with articles and media interviews. “I want to tell the story,” she says. “People are dying from the heat.”