British Columbia

B.C. wildfire smoke partly to blame for Washington state farm worker's death, say advocates

A temporary farm worker has died in Washington state and advocacy groups have blamed poor working conditions, in part due to smoke from B.C. wildfires.

Co-workers say Honesto Silva Ibarra died from dehydration and complications from cardiac arrest

Fired workers from Sarbanand Farms near Sumas, Wash., march to the company site in protest of working conditions and the handling of Honesto Silva Ibarra's illness. (Community to Community Development)

A temporary farm worker has died in Washington state and advocacy groups have blamed poor working conditions, in part due to smoke from B.C. wildfires.

Honesto Silva Ibarra, 28, of Mexico, died in a Seattle hospital Sunday after he became ill last week at the blueberry farm where he worked near Sumas, Wash., just south of the Canadian border. 

An advocacy group, Community to Community Development, said Silva became sick from dehydration, and died after going into cardiac arrest. (Silva used his second name as a surname)

The group's executive director, Rosalinda Guillen said poor working conditions at the blueberry farm have been aggravated by wildfire smoke that has blown across the border.  

"The workers have been overworked, underfed, have not been hydrated enough, and this has been going on for weeks, and that is what led to the death of Honesto," said Guillen.

Silva had been working as a berry picker for Sarbanand Farms since the spring. He was married with three children, all of whom are in Mexico.

Guillen said Silva fell ill last week while at work. He went to a local hospital, where Guillen said he suffered cardiac arrest. He was transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he died, the hospital said.

But a spokesman for Sarbanand Farms said Silva's death was caused by complications from his diabetes. In a statement sent to local media, chief administrative officer Cliff Woolley said one of Silva's relatives told the company that Silva ran out of medicine but did not tell anyone else.

When Silva fell ill last week at work, the company said it called for an ambulance and he was taken to hospital.

Silva's illness sparked protests among his co-workers who complained that working conditions at the blueberry farm were unsafe. Nearly 70 workers were fired Saturday after the demonstrations.

Protests continued Tuesday after workers heard news of Silva's death. 

Workers from Sarbanand Farms protest the death of Honesto Silva Ibarra and poor working conditions at the farm in front of the Whatcom County Courthouse. (Community to Community Development)

Meanwhile, Guilllen said other workers have also fallen ill.

"The smoke coming in over our area has aggravated those situations already and caused the workers to say 'We're going to die if we don't do something about this,' because they were collapsing," said Guillen.

On Monday, five people were taken to clinics, suffering from advanced dehydration, she said.

Washington state's department of Labour and Industries is investigating the case, looking into workplace safety factors. It has not decided whether to proceed with a formal investigation. 

Safety of B.C. farm workers

In B.C., smoky conditions from the province's wildfires have caused air quality advisories throughout much of the province. 

With nearly 45,000 agriculture workers in the province as of 2015, advocacy groups are responding to the risks facing those workers. 

"Employers should be monitoring the air quality and the heat, and if necessary allowing their workers to stop working or stop work if those conditions are such that workers are in danger of illness or death," said Irene Lanzinger, President of the B.C. Federation of Labour. ​

WorkSafeBC says while there aren't specific employer requirements for wildfire smoke, the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation and the Workers Compensation Act ensures the health and safety of workers in all work. 

They say working outside can increase air intake as much as 20 times, and employers should look for ways to reduce employees' exposure to smoke and prolonged outdoor activities.

According to WorkSafeBC, symptoms of smoke exposure can include headaches, worsening of allergies, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.

Workers with lung diseases, chronic diseases, pregnant women, and older adults can experience more severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, wheezing, persistent coughing, and chest tightness.

If workers report symptoms of smoke exposure, WorkSafeBC says to treat it just as other workplace injuries. And in the case of severe symptoms, workers should seek medical attention.