In Florida, the heat can kill. But there are no laws to protect its many outdoor workers
Efforts to establish protections for outdoor workers in Florida against the impacts of extreme heat have failed at the federal, state and local levels.
South Florida’s legendary hot summer days are powerful enough to overwhelm even the most rugged Floridians. When the temperature (and humidity) rises, anyone sweating under the sun will usually want to take a minute to catch their breath, stand in the shade and hydrate.
But those are not guaranteed benefits for the tens of thousands of outdoor workers in the state, even in Miami-Dade, which has more outdoor workers than any other county in Florida. Even as a growing body of research shows the lasting and sometimes fatal impacts of extreme heat, efforts to ask employers to provide even the most basic protections have failed at every level — federal, state and local, year after year.
In Tallahassee, a small but bipartisan push to simply suggest that employers meet the lowest bar of heat safety standards (with no consequences for not doing so) has failed three years in a row, including in the legislative session that ended in May. In Miami-Dade, a long-discussed local heat standard appears stuck in the vortex of county politics. And the Biden administration is years away from making good on a promise for mandatory federal protections.
Felipe Vasquez has been working on farms and nurseries in Homestead since he immigrated to South Florida from Guatemala five years ago. In one of his former jobs, he and a few other workers talked to their boss and convinced him to give them some of the simple protections outdoor workers have been demanding for years.
They asked for two regular, paid breaks: one 15-minute break at 9 a.m. and one half-hour break for lunch at noon. The boss agreed. He also provided them with water while they were working and gave them permission to cool off in the shade when they felt lightheaded or developed bad headaches.
“It makes the work tolerable,” Vasquez said. “That way, people can work happily and with pride.”
“Every company should work like that, but not all of them do,” he said.
Vasquez’s experience was, unfortunately, a rare one for many outdoor workers the Miami Herald talked to. Those workers, and the advocacy groups that speak up for them, say plenty of people who work in the sun are discouraged from taking breaks and aren’t given access to shade or water.
Martha Lopez had one such boss, a woman who supervised workers on a large farm in Homestead on behalf of a landowner who usually wasn’t there. “That lady wouldn’t even let you drink water,” Lopez said.
One day, Lopez said, she tried to take a break to get a water bottle from the other side of the field and her supervisor threatened to fire her for leaving her task. She pushed back, and thankfully, managed to keep her job.
But workers who ask for water aren’t always so lucky. “There are bosses that don’t respect people,” said Vazquez. “They’d rather fire you. There are plenty of people looking for work.”
Hotter days ahead
Gaspar’s situation is the reality for many outdoor workers across the state, where there is no legal right to basic heat protection like water, rest and shade.
Dehydration and exposure to chronic heat can have serious health impacts for outdoor workers, ranging from heat stroke and heat sickness to more serious kidney and heart issues.
In a 2017 study, researchers measured body temperature, heart rate and hydration levels of Florida agricultural workers and found they were often seriously dehydrated. Four in five of the workers experienced core body temperatures over 100 degrees on at least one day of the study — the medical threshold for serious heat injury. One in three workers had an acute kidney injury, an extreme consequence of dehydration.
And if an outdoor worker is balancing on a roof or ladder, or wielding heavy, dangerous machinery like a chainsaw, even “minor” symptoms of heat stress like dizziness can lead to disaster.
A new report from Public Citizen, a worker advocacy group, suggests that heat exposure could be behind up to 2,000 worker fatalities each year in the U.S., and up to 17,000 workers are injured in heat stress-related incidents every year.
As unchecked global climate change turns up the temperature, that could mean even more sick or injured outdoor workers. Miami-Dade experiences about 133 days a year where it’s over 90 degrees outside. By midcentury, the county is planning on another extra month of scorching temperatures — around 187 days a year.
Current protections lag
There are some employers who incorporate these protections as standard practice — even if they aren’t required to.
Hector Alvarez, operations manager of Homestead-based Bob Hilson & Co. Roofing, said his firm always provides cool water, ice, thermoses and hydrating drinks like Gatorade to their employees, and they have pop-up tents to provide shade on flat roofs if needed.
“If you feel weak, any sign of heat exhaustion or heat stroke,” he tells employees, “go talk to the crew chief.”
“They just gotta call it in and tell us, and until then they have the right to rest and recover,” Alvarez said.
One of the most common adaptations South Florida employers have adopted is shifting work schedules to keep people out of the sun during the hottest part of the day and year.
Shaun Carvalho, chief safety officer at Miami-based Shawmut Design and Construction, said his firm will try and have employees start very early, maybe 4 or 5 a.m., and finish around noon.
“We can do that on almost every job. If we can’t limit or adjust the work hours, we adjust the amount of time we allow folks to be exposed to direct sun,” he said.
That can mean staggered shifts with a long break in the middle of the day, or switching tasks to something in a shadier or cooler spot for part of the shift.
In some other parts of the world, these types of protections are mandatory. Saudi Arabia bans outdoor work from noon to 3 p.m. for three months of the year, and Spain has proposed a similar policy during heatwaves.
OSHA to the rescue?
In the United States, the branch of federal government in charge of labor standards, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, recommends that employers offer breaks, cold water and shade for outdoor workers when it gets hot. The agency also offers education and training on how to stay safe in the heat.
But until recently, the agency rarely went after employers who failed to do so.
Last year, OSHA fined a North Florida company $25,000 after a 41-year-old employee overheated and died while clearing invasive plants on a 97-degree July day. And earlier this year, OSHA again proposed fines against a Central Florida farm after one of its strawberry pickers died of heat exhaustion after temperatures rose to 89 degrees. He was 35 years old, and it was only his second day on the job.
Employers are required by OSHA to provide safe workspaces under its “general duty clause,” but there are no specific rules around extreme heat.
After a massive push from advocates, OSHA started working on a heat policy in 2021. And three years later, that law could still be a decade away from being law. That’s why advocacy groups like Public Citizen have been pushing for an interim heat standard to protect workers in the meantime.
Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate with Public Citizen, said the primary pushback she’s heard of any kind of heat rule is cost. She said she’s been in discussions over these rules where agricultural industry representatives argue that factoring in breaks for workers will cost them money.
“It does come down to things that they don’t do right now that will be required of them and they think it will cost them money,” she said. But, “It might save some lives, save people from horrible illnesses. It’s going to save from accidents happening at work.”
Dead bills in Tallahassee
With a federal rule likely years away, several states have instituted their own heat protection laws, but not Florida.
California adopted an outdoor heat standard nearly two decades ago and is now working on one for indoor workers, like warehouse employees. Oregon, Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado and Washington all have their own as well.
In each state, the laws spell out exactly what protections must be in place and have penalties for when employers don’t comply. But in Florida, where hundreds of thousands of people toil in the hot sun every day, similar measures have failed for three years in a row in the Legislature.
Three years ago, state lawmakers unanimously passed a heat illness prevention bill for student-athletes after a young football player died from heat exhaustion. It requires schools and athletic programs to offer water and rest to kids.
But protecting workers has never gotten very far. The state’s latest heat protection bill — which only recommends water, rest and shade and has no penalties for workplaces that don’t offer them, has died in committee every time — despite bipartisan backers.
Florida isn’t the only state struggling to pass a heat standard. Earlier this year, Nevada’s legislature proposed its own version, which would protect indoor and outdoor workers from extreme heat and hold employers accountable if they fail to do so. After negotiations with industry representatives push the threshold for protections up to 105 degrees, the bill faltered and stalled.
A frozen push in Miami-Dade
With state efforts at a standstill, Miami-Dade has floated the idea of creating its own heat standard for nearly two years, although no formal bill has been introduced.
A local heat standard is a top priority of WeCount!, a local worker advocacy organization that represents farm and nursery workers, construction workers and day laborers. Their campaign, Que Calor, has drawn attention to the impact of extreme heat on outdoor workers and the need for mandatory protections.
Executive director Oscar Londoño said the organization has drafted the legislation and found a county commissioner to sponsor it, and they hope it will be introduced during the hottest part of the summer, which Miami-Dade now calls its heat season.
“I think the biggest challenge is political courage. We need many more of our county commissioners to stand with working people and working families who are asking for the bare minimum, which is water shade and rest, the right to go to work and to return home alive,” he said.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.
Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.