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Florida blocks heat protections for workers right before summer

A man works in a Florida agricultural field on a hot, humid day in July 2023, one of the hottest months ever recorded in the state. There are no federal heat regulations.
Chandan Khanna
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AFP via Getty Images
A man works in a Florida agricultural field on a hot, humid day in July 2023, one of the hottest months ever recorded in the state. There are no federal heat regulations.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a law that prevents cities or counties from creating protections for workers who labor in the state's often extreme and dangerous heat.

Twomillionpeople in Florida, from construction to agriculture, work outside in often humid, blazing heat.

For years, many of them have asked for rules to protect them from heat: paid rest breaks, water, and access to shade when temperatures soar. After years of negotiations, such rules were on the agenda in Miami-Dade County, home to an estimated 300,000 outdoor workers.

But the new law, signed Thursday evening, blocks such protections from being implemented in cities and counties across the state.

Miami-Dade pulled its local heat protection rule from consideration after the statewide bill passed the legislature in March.

"It's outrageous that the state legislature will override the elected officials of Miami Dade or other counties that really recognize the importance of protecting that community of workers," says David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University and a former administrator at the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

The loss of the local rule was a major blow to Miami-Dade activists and workers who had hoped the county heat protection rules would be in place before summer.

In a press conference on Friday, DeSantis said the bill he signed did not come from him. "There was a lot of concern out of one county, Miami-Dade. And I don't think it was an issue in any other part of the state," DeSantis said. "I think they were pursuing something that was going to cause a lot of problems down there."

But extreme heat will only get worse. "Last year was the hottest summer in Florida's history. And this year will likely be the hottest summer in Florida's history," says Esteban Wood, director of the advocacy group We-Count, one of the organizations working on heat protections in Miami-Dade. The new law, he says, represents "a profound loss for not only the campaign but for all the families that have for many years been fighting for the minimum—which was just water, shade and rest, and the right to return home after work alive."

Lupe Gonzalo knows this reality well. She used to pick tomatoes in Florida during the summer and she'd find herself woozy from the heat. Sometimes she'd cramp up or get piercing headaches. Gonzalo shoved bottles of water into every pocket, but even that wasn't nearly enough to get her through the day. Some colleagues, she says, went to the hospital with heat exhaustion—and some even died.

"Without water, without rests, without shade, the body of a worker—it resents it," Gonzalo says in Spanish.

The heat has already caused problems this spring. Samuel Nava, a landscaper from Homestead, Florida, says in March his coworker collapsed with heat-induced cramps. Nava helped him get to the emergency room.

Nava says he's used to the heat working for months on end in high humidity, his clothes drenched in sweat.

"Es como una sauna," he says—it's like a sauna.

Patchy national protections against heat

Heat risks have grown dramatically in recent years. Globally, since the 1980s, climate change has made heat waveslast longer. They come more frequently and affect bigger areas. The worst heat waves are several degrees hotter now than they would have been without human-caused climate change.

The U.S. experienced its hottest-ever summer in 2023, and Florida recorded itshottest-ever July and August. The heat index, a measure that incorporates both temperature and humidity, stayed above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 46 days in a row in Miami.

Construction workers often labor under dangerously hot, humid conditions in Florida, like during 2023's July heat wave. Heat records broke across the state during 2023's summer.
Eva Marie Uzcategui / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Construction workers often labor under dangerously hot, humid conditions in Florida, like during 2023's July heat wave. Heat records broke across the state during 2023's summer.

Despite the increasing risks, there are no federal rules regulating when it's too hot to work, even though thousands of heat-related injuries and dozens of deaths are reported across the U.S. every year. There is a federal requirement that employers keep workers safe on the job, and recommendations for how to do so, including protecting workers from extreme heat. But the guidance doesn't say exactly what those protections are or what to do when limits are surpassed.

A handful of states or local jurisdictions like Miami-Dade have attempted to create some protections. Some have succeeded, but more have stalled or failed.

California was the first to establish regulations in 2006. They require employers to provide shade, rest breaks, and access to cool, clean water for outdoor workers. After the rules were implemented, heat-related workers compensation claims dropped, according to a 2021 study from UCLA.

More recently, after several farm workers died in the deadly June heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in 2021, Washington andOregon created worker protections from heat.

Political headwinds have blocked other efforts. Proposals in state legislatures including Virginia and Nevada failed. In Texas, Austin and Dallas created ordinances that required employers to provide paid water breaks to outdoor workers. But last year Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a "preemption" law that blocked local jurisdictions from making such rules. The goal, Abbott's office said, was to prevent a "patchwork" of differing local rules, which they contended would cause confusion for businesses in the state.

Florida's new law is similar to the one passed in Texas, though it is more narrowly focused on preventing heat protections. Lobbyists cited similar concerns to Texas, saying they wanted clarity and consistency statewide.

"Predictability and certainty is what we look for," says Carol Bowen, chief lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida, an industry group. "You want a set of consistent guidelines so you know the road map." Right now, she says, the federal recommendations provide a clear-enough outline.

But Shefali Milczarek-Desai, a labor law expert at the University of Arizona, says "If the legislature is really concerned about having a patchwork of heat standards, then why doesn't the legislature itself pass a heat standard regulation?" Proposed heat legislation has come up before the Florida legislature several times in recent years but it has not moved forward.

OSHA began working on national rules targeting heat in 2021, but the process could take years. Creating a new OSHA ruletakes on average seven years from start to implementation, according to the Governmental Accountability Office.

In the meantime, the state-by-state patchwork of rules leaves tens of millions of workers at risk, says Michaels. "We need a solution that protects all workers, and that's what the federal standard will do," he says.

High heat risks in Florida

Nationally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 436 heat-related worker deaths between 2011 and 2021. The true number is likely much higher, says Juley Fulcher, a policy expert at Public Citizen, an organization focused on worker health and safety. Public Citizen estimates 2,000 workers die, and more than 100,000 are injured, from heat-related issues each year.

The discrepancy could come from counting technicalities. Only injuries or deaths that can be directly linked to heat usually get recorded in official statistics—when someone passes out from heatstroke, for example, and falls off a ladder. But heat can affect people in less obvious ways that still lead to injury or death. Heat draws blood away from the brain, affecting people's ability to think clearly. That can lead to clumsiness or dangerous mistakes.

Heat also puts extra stress on the body, increasing the chance of other health problems developing. Medical providers are seeing people with kidney problems from heat exposure, or strokes, or "because their heart symptoms are worse after people experienced extreme conditions in their homes if they couldn't run air conditioning," says Shauna Junco, an infectious disease pharmacist and board member of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action.

Absent federal rules protecting workers from heat, a few states like California, Oregon, and Washington have made their own. Others like Texas and now Florida have blocked local attempts to create protective rules.
Chameleonseye / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Absent federal rules protecting workers from heat, a few states like California, Oregon, and Washington have made their own. Others like Texas and now Florida have blocked local attempts to create protective rules.

In a 2020 study, climate scientist Michelle Tigchellar and her colleagues looked atthe heat risks to agricultural workers across the country. Under good working conditions—with regular breaks, shade, and water access—most workers, they found, can stay relatively safe up to a heat index of about 83 degrees Fahrenheit. The risks build quickly beyond that threshold. In one Florida county, they analyzed, working conditions are already hotter than that for 113 days out of the year. That number could rise to 148 days if global temperatures rise further.

"In places like Florida where there's a lot of humid heat, the entire growing season will be unsafe to work," Tigchelaar says.

Florida does see risks for some people

Many people in Florida recognize the dangers of heat.

In 2020, after the heat-related death of 16-year-old football player Zachary Martin-Polsenberg in 2017, Florida lawmakers unanimously passed a law requiring schools to protect student-athletes from heat illness.

"In the same way high-school athletes should be protected, outdoor workers should too," says Esteban Wood from We-Count.

But heat protections for workers will take time.

Meanwhile, this summer's heat is projected to be another hot one in a string of record-breaking years. Wood is already worried about how bad things could get in the coming months. He and his colleagues are trying to figure out what they can do to help people stay safe in the continued absence of stricter rules protecting them.

One strategy, says Lupe Gonzalo, is to find alternative solutions while the policy-making slowly moves. She and her colleagues at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker organization based in south Florida, have developed a community-led effort called the Fair Food Program.

Their organization has agreements with major food brands like Walmart and Chipotle—enormous buyers of the fresh produce their workers pick and prepare. The buyers require the agricultural growers to provide safe working conditions, including water, shade, and rest breaks on a schedule dictated by heat conditions. So far, the program has been working effectively, Gonzalo says—doing what the state has not.

Jessica Meszaros with member station WUSF contributed to this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 11, 2024 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The story has been corrected.
Alejandra Borunda
[Copyright 2024 NPR]