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Why Is It So Hard to Get Heat Protection for Florida’s Outdoor Workers?

The legislative attempt to mandate worker heat protection standards would help train employers and employees on the signs of heat illness and would require supervisors to provide water and a 10-minute break every two hours.

Florida lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sponsored bills over the past six of seven years that would protect Floridians who work outside in the heat.

The bills have stalled each time. People and groups who speak up for Florida workers say they expect the same during this legislative session.

And now, a double whammy: Another bill proposed this session would ban Florida cities and counties from implementing their own heat protections. Workers’ rights groups say the bill is likely a reaction to a measure in Miami-Dade County that seeks heat protections for some workers.

The absence of statewide protections in concert with local governments potentially being unable to enact their own rules puts workers in danger as climate change fuels record-breaking temperatures in Florida, including the hottest summer on record last year, advocates say.

“This idea of giving water breaks to farmworkers and construction workers during dangerous heat waves on scorching hot days … that’s something that local communities should decide in their own backyards,” said Esteban Wood, the policy director at WeCount!, a membership organization that advocates for worker rights in South Florida.

What Protections Exist for Workers?

While a handful of states have heat protections for workers, no federal, state or local standards exist in Florida.

The closest the federal government can get to enforcing heat safety on employers falls under a general clause from the Occupational Safety and Health Act that requires them to protect workers from dangerous working conditions, said Douglas Parker, the assistant secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Heath.

Since April 2022, the department has conducted about 300 “heat inspections” in which it looks at a company’s heat exposure protocols and potential heat dangers.

It’s difficult to track instances of heat illness and death. Because heat can be a contributing factor to health issues including cardiovascular disease, a person’s death may not be recorded as heat-related, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Department of Labor has cited a few Florida businesses for heat-related deaths.

On Jan. 1, 2023, for instance, a 28-year-old man was found unresponsive in a shallow drainage ditch on his first day working at a Parkland farm. The man had said he was tired and had leg pains.

While it was in the middle of winter, the heat index neared 90 degrees that day. The man had just arrived from Mexico, and Parker said workers not used to Florida’s heat are more at risk.

An investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined the man died due to heat-related illness.

The man who employed him, Rafael Barajas, was fined more than $15,000 for exposing workers to high heat conditions in direct sunlight, the agency said. The fee was later lowered to $12,500.

Last year, Miami-Dade County considered passing groundbreaking labor protections requiring water, rest and shade for agriculture and construction workers.

Opponents said it was overreaching. It would have fined and possibly barred businesses from working with the county if they broke the rules.

The decision was delayed until March. At a November meeting, commissioners pushed back against the bill, saying that it was too much regulation.

The Seven-Year Push for More Protections

Karen Woodall, executive director of Florida’s People’s Advocacy Center, has pushed for the statewide bill over the last seven years.

The legislations’ language has remained virtually unchanged since it was introduced in 2018. 2021 is the only year the bill had no sponsor.

The bill calls for the creation of a program that would train employers and employees on the signs of heat illness. It also would require supervisors to provide water and a 10-minute break every two hours, among other stipulations.

It would require the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Department of Health to approve the programs and certify employer’s compliance.

Woodall said the bill focuses just on education and training.

“There’s no penalties, there’s no cause of action ... there’s no gotcha in it,” Woodall said. “People aren’t going to get sued, but that’s what the opposition is telling people.”

There has been little discourse over the bill, despite its age. It has been heard just once in the Senate and never in the House.

Jeannie Economos, the pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator for The Farmworkers Association of Florida, thinks many lawmakers believe heat education for outdoor workers makes sense.

“But the big industry associations are lobbying against it,” Economos said. “And I would say that they (lawmakers) are caving to the lobbyists.”

In 2022, the bill was heard in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, where it passed unanimously. The bill later died without being heard in any other committee.

“A lot of members don’t even know about it, because it’s never been before them,” Woodall said.

The bill’s House sponsor, Michael Gottlieb, D- Plantation, said the bill is designed to allow businesses to operate safely and efficiently.

“I think big business doesn’t want to be mandated to do certain things,” he said, “so there’s a push back and there’s a fear that it will create a cause of action.”

While the heat protections bill treads water, the bill that would prevent local governments from passing their own protections has sailed through two Senate committees.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to make sure that we have a uniform standard and we don’t have a patchwork of regulation,” said Sen. Jay Trumbull R- Panama City, the bill’s sponsor, during a committee meeting last week.

Other supporters say the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is working on regulations that would apply uniform rules. Parker confirmed the administration is working on heat safety rules, but said it’s a lengthy process that still has to pass multiple hurdles.

What Are The Dangers of Outdoor Work?

Roxana Chicas immigrated from El Salvador to the United States as a young girl. She grew up surrounded by outdoor workers in the immigrant Latino community.

Chicas is now a researcher and assistant professor at Emory University, where she studies the dangers of heat to farmworkers in Central Florida.

The studies started 12 years ago when researchers asked workers what they were interested in. The heat’s danger to their health was a popular topic.

In the years since, Chicas and her team have used monitoring equipment and blood and urine samples to check on workers.

In one study, Chicas found that on an average day, about half the workers had a core body temperature of more than 100 degrees.

“That means that workers are essentially working with a fever, except they have no infection, and they experience similar symptoms that we do when we have a fever: headache, muscle cramps, body aches, nausea,” Chicas said.

Many of the workers hit that threshold by 10 a.m., she said.

Another finding, Chicas said, was that about a third of workers had “acute kidney injury.”

“So the question is, will these workers eventually have chronic kidney disease because they’re having multiple episodes of acute kidney injury throughout their time working as agriculture workers,” Chicas said.

Chicas’ studies found that it didn’t take much to make workers healthier in the heat.

Workers provided with a wet bandana were far less likely to reach body temps of 100 degrees. Those who received five liters of water with electrolytes instead of plain water had no reports of acute kidney injury.

“If there’s willpower and there’s creativity, and we protect workers, your productivity will not be affected,” Chicas said. “And perhaps it will even improve and you won’t have people dying out in the fields.”

©2024 Tampa Bay Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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