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Ban of local heat protections for outdoor workers could create a 'public health crisis'

Farmworkers picking strawberries
U.S. Department of Agriculture
The state no longer allows local governments in Florida to enact laws designed to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat.

A farmworker, advocate and member of the medical community weigh in on Gov. Ron DeSantis signing a bill that will prohibit local governments enacting laws to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat.

Local governments in Florida will be banned from protecting outdoor workers from extreme heat after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the preemption into law Thursday night.

This comes ahead of what's expected to be an even hotter summer than last year’s record-setting months. It’s part of a warming trend brought by human-driven climate change, as the burning of fossil fuels puts heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

Lucia Lopez, 34, is a mother of four and works on a tomato farm in Parrish. She came to Florida from Mexico when she was 10.

Woman wearing a pink hoodie and cap with blue gloves holding a bucket near tomato plants.
Lucia Lopez
34-year-old Lucia Lopez working in the tomato field.

She said farmworkers have to wear a lot of gear to protect against the sun and the chemicals used in the fields, like bandanas to cover their faces, hats, long sleeve shirts, pants and special shoes. This can all feel suffocating, she said.

Some days in the heat are worse than others with headache and feeling dehydrated, Lopez said.

“The ones that are not used to [the heat] sometimes they work half a day, and the ones that can’t really handle the heat are taken to the hospital or the clinic,” she said, translated from Spanish.

Workers may then be on leave without pay for a week or two, Lopez said.

The way the pay system works for farmworkers, she said, is that the harder you work, the more money you make, so voluntary breaks mean less income.

Heat illness

Shauna Junco, a clinical pharmacist and board president of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, said that Florida or Arizona are typically the states with the highest number of emergency department visits due to heat illness.

“Heat illness is called the silent killer amongst the medical community because it's insidious, and it's not recognized as a cause of death. But when you look at the data, it causes more deaths than any other type of natural disaster really combined,” said Junco.

“It kills more people than floods, wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes, but it's just not recognized, especially in Florida where it's chronic, so we’re seeing workers die from heat.”

House Bill 433

Florida House Bill 433, which will go into effect July 1, prohibits cities and counties from establishing protections, like water breaks, for outdoor workers in extreme heat.

Lopez said this legislation is bad news for her and her colleagues.

“I think that everyone that comes to this country comes to fight for our families, and besides that, the laborious work is very harsh and underpaid,” she said.

“Heat illness is called the silent killer amongst the medical community because it's insidious, and it's not recognized as a cause of death. But when you look at the data, it causes more deaths than any other type of natural disaster really combined.”
Shauna Junco, clinical pharmacist

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to WUSF’s emailed request for comment, but the governor was asked to comment on this legislation during a news conference Friday morning for a different bill signing.

He said this measure didn’t come from him, but out of concern for Miami-Dade County. It would have been the first county to establish a local heat ordinance for outdoor workers, but backed out once the legislature approved the state bill.

“I think they were pursuing something that was going to cause a lot of problems down there. So I think a lot of the members of the Miami-Dade delegation created that just to steer clear of those problems,” DeSantis said.

Business interests have voiced opposition to local heat ordinances, like billionaire Jorge Perez, known as the “Miami condo king,” who wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald making the argument that heat regulations would cripple the construction and agriculture industries.

Miami-Dade’s ordinance

The ordinance in Miami-Dade would have required a notice of employee rights to be provided to new employees in English, Spanish and Creole.

It would have also required outdoor employers who were in agriculture and construction to establish a mandatory heat exposure safety program, and provide heat illness prevention practices and first aid practices, implementing high heat procedures.

Esteban Wood is with WeCount!, a membership-based organization in South Florida made up of farm, plant nursery and construction workers, which has been an advocate for the ordinance in Miami-Dade.

He said the governor signing this into law is a "disgrace" and "shameful."

"He will go down in history as taking part in the organized effort at blocking water breaks for farmworkers," said Wood.

“Ultimately, the county and the state has a responsibility to protect these workers in this, in what will be a public health crisis."
Esteban Wood

“We think that this organized effort, this move not only risks lives, but it also silences communities. And it really goes against Florida's sort of longstanding principle of local control. And we believe that this is incredibly disappointing and unfortunate that legislators are siding with corporate interests, while at the same time stifling local progress.”

He said this issue is not going anywhere, as we’re likely to experience record temperatures, even more deaths and heat illness and occupational injuries this summer.

“Ultimately, the county and the state have a responsibility to protect these workers in this, in what will be a public health crisis," Wood said.

For now, Wood said advocates will explore ways outside of the legislative process to protect outdoor workers, like modeling Immokalee's Fair Food Program.

The program’s website describes it as “a partnership that benefits everyone in the supply chain: workers, growers, retailers and consumers,” in which farmworkers can report issues without fear, growers can address any problems and buyers “can count on a secure and ethical supply chain.”

As for what Lopez said she and her colleagues need: easier access to medical care.

“I think that everything is too far from us … to find the closest clinic you have to drive 30 minutes to an hour,” Lopez said. “I think there should be paramedics close by or medical assistance really close because on the farm our colleagues are not trained for that.”

HB 433 sponsor Tiffany Esposito, R-Fort Myers, also did not respond to WUSF’s emailed request for comment.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.