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'Too Hot To Work' Study Paints Dire Consequences For Florida Outdoor Workers

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The study projects that by midcentury, without action on climate change, Florida's workers on average could potentially lose 33 work days per year due to extreme heat compared to five now.

In 2019, the nonpartisan Union of Concerned Scientists came out with studies showing "killer heat" could have dangerous consequences for the country. On Tuesday, they're following that up witha look at how outdoor workers would be affected.

They say if nothing is done to reduce emissions by the end of the century, extreme heat will cost Florida more than $8 billion in lost work.

RELATED: Hundreds Of Workers Have Died From Heat In Last Decade. It's Getting Worse

WUSF's Steve Newborn talks about the report with its author, climate scientist Rachel Licker.

LICKER: What we saw, especially during the COVID pandemic, and continuing to see is that there are many different workers who are considered essential but don't have protections in place to ensure that they can stay safe. And we saw staggering increases in heat projected across the United States, particularly in Florida. And we wanted to know the implications for workers who are essential, in light of that hazard.

So what we did was we used the projections of extreme heat from our previous study together with census data to try to understand the amount of workdays that could be at risk as a result of extreme heat and the earnings that could be at risk for those outdoor workers, too.

Graphic of how many lost worker days could be faced in Florida if nothing is done to reduce emissions by late century.
Union of Concerned Scientists
Graphic of how many lost worker days could be faced in Florida if nothing is done to reduce emissions by late century.

Your study says that Florida is the second most at-risk state in the country — even ahead of California –- from the amount of outdoor worker earnings that are at risk from the cost of extreme heat.

LICKER: We project that by midcentury without action on climate change, Florida could see 33 work days at risk per year, versus five historically. That's within the next few decades, that's not far off. Together with the fact that Florida has about 2 million outdoor workers. That means there's a lot of heat and a lot of people that could be exposed.

You're talking about agricultural workers, construction workers, you know, delivery people, police officers — not just roofers. So there's a lot of people here that would be affected.

LICKER: So you know, we're talking about all the different people whose jobs require working outdoors. And yeah, there are some occupations where maybe workloads could be lightened or schedules could be shifted to cooler parts of the day. But that's not always feasible. You know, we can't choose when emergencies happen. And so we can't always adapt our way out of the situation. And that's why it's so critical that we take action on climate change now to prevent really massive increases in extreme heat.

Your study mentions that four of every 10 outdoor workers in Florida are identified as African American, Hispanic or Latino. So we're looking at like the pandemic, where people who are going to be hit especially hard are minorities.

Rachel Licker
Union of Concerned Scientists
Rachel Licker

LICKER: That's exactly right. And, you know, we have longstanding systemic inequalities that, when you put a population that is disproportionately exposed, these are populations that have on average disproportionate access to quality health care, and other things that put them in that real risk of illness and injury in the face of extreme heat.

I'm going to zoom in on Hillsborough County — Tampa in particular. Your study says that we fail to control carbon emissions by the end of the century — if we do nothing — Hillsborough County will lose an average of 67 work days a year because of extreme heat. That's about 10 times what it is now. What's the effect on our economy?

LICKER: Hillsborough County is looking at almost $1 billion of earnings for outdoor workers at risk of being lost, really significant earnings at risk, which would have implications for local economies, for the families that outdoor workers are trying to support, the services that they're providing. It just manifests in so many different ways.

So what is the purpose of this report? Who's it aimed at? Are you basically trying to spur action by governmental agencies?

LICKER: Certainly, we really are hoping to underscore the importance of taking aggressive action on climate change, because there's so much at risk and so much to gain from taking action. We can prevent these big increases in heat and create a possibility of adapting and keeping people safe. So we have options.

We’re also advocating for common-sense measures to be enacted to protect outdoor workers. Now, there are actually no federal- and Florida-mandated measures to protect workers from outdoor heat. There’s actually a piece of legislation that was introduced in Congress called theAsuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021. That would guarantee outdoor workers the right to access to shade, water, the right to really, quite frankly, basic human rights to stay safe in the face of this very significant hazard.

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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.