FL’s record heat can be deadly: When will lawmakers approve protections for outdoor workers?
One farmworker has died this year and police are investigating another farmworker death related to heat in South Florida
A farmworker in Immokalee harvests tomatoes. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
On January 1 this year, while many Floridians were kicking back and watching college football or simply celebrating the beginning of the New Year, a 28-year-old from Mexico with a work visa started his first day on the job harvesting vegetables at C.W. Hendrix Farms in Parkland, in Broward County.
It would be his last day on this Earth.
The unnamed immigrant farmworker was found unresponsive in a shallow drainage ditch after complaining of fatigue and leg pain during a day when the heat index hovered near 90 degrees, according to a recent press release from the U.S. Department of Labor.
In another case, the Miami-Dade Police Department told the Florida Phoenix last week that the agency is investigating a possible death due to heat stroke. The farmworker, Efraín López García, died July 6 at age 30. The worker was found in an agricultural field in Homestead, in Miami-Dade County, in the middle of the workday. According to comments from his relatives, as reported by Univisión, he was found by his companions under a tree “and already lifeless.”
Heat exposure is responsible for at least several dozen fatalities in the U.S. each year, but currently there are no state regulations in Florida or nationally to address heat related stress. Only a handful of states have passed laws dealing with heat illness prevention for workers. And while the harvesting season for many seasonal workers in Florida is from the fall to the spring, there are still people working outside every day this summer in Florida, as temperatures intensify.
Quitting because of intense heat
“People who work in nurseries and ferneries and green houses and tree farms, they’re all considered farmworkers and they are working through this summer,” says Jeannie Economos, the pesticide safety and environmental health program coordinator for The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc.
“Plants need to be watered. Plants have to be cared for. And if you go to buy roses, it was farmworkers who took of those roses and helped plant those roses. So it’s not just food crops.”
Maria Pineda was one such worker. The El Salvador native was a fern cutter working in the Orange County town of Zellwood from 1998 to 2015, but she ultimately quit because she couldn’t deal with the heat.
“We don’t take time for a drink of water because they ask for production. You work for production. Every time you stop, you stop your production,” she told the Phoenix in a phone interview. “We make money by cutting the leaves by piece. You have to produce many pieces so you get paid for the week.”
Pineda says it wasn’t until after she left that job that she realized that she was becoming ill because of the stress her body was going through in working in intense heat.
“We never related the heat to the sickness we felt,” she says. “We never related the struggle we were having to the heat. We need to let our community know that it’s dangerous, you know?”
As of July 17, temperatures in Florida have been as high as 93 in Miami, Jacksonville and Tallahassee, according to national data. And the National Weather Service issued another heat advisory on Monday for portions of Southeast, Southern and Southwest Florida, with heat index values up to 110 degrees.
“Hot temperatures and high humidity may cause heat illness to occur,” according to the advisory. (“The heat index, also known as the apparent temperature, is what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature,” according to the National Weather Service.)
Lawmakers did little or nothing
As has been the case over the past five years, a bipartisan bill was proposed in the 2023 Florida legislative session that would have required farmers, construction companies and landscapers who employ outdoor workers to educate them about heat illness. Employers would also be asked to provide workers with adequate drinking water, access to shade and 10-minute recovery breaks in extreme heat (defined as 80 degrees or higher). It never received a hearing.
“I think the argument that I’ve heard against it is that certain industries, businesses, don’t like to create employee rights because they feel that they could get sued over it,” says Broward County Democratic House Rep. Mike Gottlieb, who sponsored the measure in the Florida House last session.
“Florida hasn’t done enough to protect outdoor workers,” adds former Orange County Democratic House member Carlos Guillermo Smith, who sponsored the measure during the 2019 legislative session. “The recent heat advisories give us a new sense of urgency to take action. I mean the temperatures aren’t just extreme, they’re dangerous. Extreme temperatures are putting workers at risk and it’s a public health issue…Imagine working outside for long periods of time. And workers in Florida don’t have the right to water and shade. They deserve it.”
Smith also notes that his bill and every one of the other proposals that have been introduced in recent years did not include any penalties to employers for noncompliance.
Florida lawmakers have enacted a law that addresses extreme heat in Florida, but it wasn’t directed at people who must work outdoors for a living.
In 2020 the Florida Legislature passed and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that protects student athletes in Florida high schools by requiring those schools to monitor heat stress and make cooling zones available for athletic activities. Economos says her organization absolutely supports student-athletes getting such protection from the heat, but asks why can’t those considerations be made for those working construction, repairing roofs or harvesting food?
“It’s absolutely unconscionable that we don’t have heat stress protections for workers and yet all these workers were considered essential workers during COVID, “she laments.
Only a few states got involved
President Joe Biden directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration OSHA in September of 2021 to begin the rulemaking for heat stress standards, but analysts say it generally takes at least seven years for the federal agency to complete a standard from beginning to end.
“There’s an expectation that they’ll have a national proposed rule together before the end of Biden’s first term” says Juley Fulcher, the worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. But she says that with hearings and public comment to follow, it’s still “a few years before a final rule will be issued.”
Fulcher is the author of a new report published for Public Citizen called Hot Take: The Demand for Immediate Worker Protections as Dangerous Temperatures Rise. She says just as there are regulations to ensure that workers wear personal protection equipment when exposed to asbestos and people who work on high-rise construction sites use straps, harnesses, and other safety devices, those who toil in the intense heat deserve similar protections.
“Workers should have basic safety protocols in place that are going to protect them from this hazard at work,” she says. “And you cannot expect the human body to work under extreme heat conditions, especially doing heavy work lifting and whatnot, and not have ways for that body to cool down periodically.”
The report says that instead of waiting for OSHA to act, Congress should pass the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2022, which calls on OSHA to implement an interim heat standard for indoor and outdoor workers until a final heat rule can be completed.
Illness and deaths
While the media often focuses on deaths in the fields, the Public Citizen report lists how up to 170,000 workers in the U.S. annually suffer from heat-related illnesses that range in severity from severe heat rash to acute kidney injuries, heat stroke and heat-stress induced cardiac arrest.
“So you may not die from heat, okay? But you might have kidney failure. You might have heart failure. You might have other organ impacts that might affect you 5-10 years down the road because of chronic dehydration,” says Economos, of the Farmworker Association of Florida.
“And that’s what people aren’t talking about; that needs to be talked about more, because that’s a health justice issue, that’s a public health issue and it’s just a normal human compassion issue and human rights issue, so I wish people would talk about that.”
In the case of the farmworker who died in Parkland on New Year’s Day, OSHA cited contractor Rafael Barajas for exposing workers to hazards associated with high ambient heat while working in direct sunlight. He faces a $15,635 in proposed penalties.
A subsequent investigation by the Department of Labor’s OSHA, determined that Barajas, an Okeechobee farm labor contractor who hired the farmworker, could have prevented his death by following safety practices regarding heat-related hazards.
Barajas told the Phoenix that he needed to meet with OSHA officials to learn what he was being fined for, “because when the autopsy came back, there was nothing – no stress, no heat. The autopsy came out clean,” he said.
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