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Lack of regulations for outdoor workers leads to hazardous work environments

Agriculture workers adjust a trellis to support bitter melon
Marta Lavandier/AP
Agriculture workers adjust a trellis to support bitter melon, Sept. 5, 2023, in Homestead, Fla. Undocumented workers live in fear and anxiety after a new law signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The law targets them and employers with 25 or more employees which mandates they verify that their workers are legally allowed to work.

On this episode of Florida Matters, we explore what the bill means for these workers. We also speak with a journalist about her investigation into the working conditions for hurricane cleanup workers.

When extreme weather hits Florida, the destruction can be immense. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that Hurricane Idalia caused $3.6 billion in damage when it barreled into the Big Bend last year.

And cleaning it up is tough, dirty and dangerous work. The workers are often left without adequate protection as they deal with toxic mold, dust and other hazardous environments.

In fact, people who work outside for a living face inadequate protection from the heat as well, come July. Gov. DeSantis signed a bill prohibiting local governments from putting heat protections in place for outdoor workers.

On this episode of Florida Matters, we explore what the bill means for these workers. We also speak with a journalist about her investigation into the working conditions for hurricane cleanup workers.

Heat protection ban

According to WUSF’s Jessica Meszaros, the heat protection ban, or "the employee regulations bill," is a direct result of heat protections almost being regulated in Miami-Dade County.

“The head of one of the largest real estate development firms in the country, Jorge Perez, wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald, along with the CEO of Costa Farms, Jose Smith,” Meszaros explained. “They make the case that these local regulations would burden the construction and agriculture industries,” meaning, putting regulations in place like water consumption and cooling measures would cost money and slow down production.

Perez also says that the regulations would be a new set of overreaching regulations and penalties while both industries already comply with federal heat standards issued and enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. OSHA does have a “general duty rule” which Meszaros says requires employers to provide workplaces that are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” And while extreme heat is listed as one of those hazards, this rule isn’t really enforced.

The employee regulations bill does have some rules surrounding minimum wage and benefits. But when it comes to heat regulations and exposure, the bill bans local governments from mandating:

  • employee monitoring and protection
  • water consumption
  • cooling measures
  • acclimation and recovery periods or practices
  • posting or distributing notices or materials that inform employees how to protect themselves from heat exposure
  • implementation and maintenance of heat exposure programs or training
  • appropriate first aid measures or emergency responses related to heat exposure protections for employees who report they have experienced excessive heat exposure
  • reporting and record keeping requirements

In her reporting, Meszaros spoke to a farm worker in Manatee County who says some days are worse than others, like the ones where you get headaches from dehydration. She says to protect themselves from the heat, she and fellow workers layer up their clothes and accessories, wearing things like face hats, long-sleeved shirts, and thick pants and shoes to protect from chemicals. And it’s all very suffocating.
As for breaks and water, Lopez said the incentive is to keep working. So, while they can take breaks, they cost money. Because they aren’t salaried employees, the more they work, the more they get paid.

This creates a greater risk of getting sick from the heat, which Shauna Junco, a pharmacist and board chair for the Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, says is almost always preventable and treatable.

“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.”

Better access to medical care could help save lives from heat illness.

Lopez says she thinks this is the most important thing for outdoor workers in Florida to receive because they’re not medically trained and the closest clinic can be at least 30 minutes away.

Speaking to an advocate from WeCount!, Meszaros said the group is trying to go the legislative route to appeal the ban. They’ve also been exploring ways around it outside of legislation, like with the Fair Food Program. The voluntary program started in Immokalee, Florida. It’s essentially a partnership between everyone in the food supply chain: workers, growers, retailers and consumers. Farmers can go through the group to report issues without fear and the growers can address those problems.

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.

Toxic labor investigation

María Inés Zamudio is a journalist at the Center for Public Integrity. Her team, along with Columbia University and Futuro Investigates, conducted an investigation into the working conditions facing Latino immigrants who travel from disaster site to disaster site. These workers are exposed to toxins like lead, asbestos and mold, but in many cases, they’re not provided the right safety equipment.

She says disaster recovery is a booming industry, moving about $150 billion every year. But the workforce is largely unregulated and invisible.

“We really wanted to understand what happens to these workers that are exposed to the same toxins from worksite to worksite,” Zamudio explained. “After digging, we realized that there is no official federal data, or state data, available tracking how many of these workers were getting sick every year. There's also no government agency or advocacy organization that was studying how prolonged exposure to these toxins was affecting the workers’ health.”

The team created the questionnaire to document exposure and the symptoms associated with the toxins. They interviewed 100 workers and found that many of them experienced headaches and respiratory and skin problems.

OSHA is the agency tasked with protecting these workers but after disasters, they suspend their enforcement of labor standards, leaving a population that may not have legal status and probably doesn’t speak the language, to advocate for themselves against the companies they work for.

“Oftentimes, they show up, they get hired, and they get exposed to all these toxins,” Zamudio said. “Some of these companies don't have any responsibility over workers, because most of the times they are hired by third parties, or labor contractors. Oftentimes, you see this population just being completely vulnerable.”

Zamudio’s investigation led her to two brothers who have been cleaning up after storms since Hurricane Katrina.

They go into detail about their working conditions and talk about being exposed to mold in New Orleans.

“Mariano fell off the roof. Santos lost his eyesight temporarily,” she explained. “These are really dangerous jobs. And yet the most enduring problem that that both of them had was asthma.”

Zamudio says she had to pause her interview because Santos was out of breath and couldn’t speak anymore.

“Santos talks about how he has to dab vaporub under his nose every night to soothe the symptoms. His brother, Mariano, talks about how sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night tasting blood. It is just this exposure over time that has really taken a toll on their bodies.”

She says since Hurricane Katrina, their working conditions haven’t changed much, despite where the job takes place. With contractors not providing protective equipment or training, it leads to more issues for the workers.

“Government research really shows that exposure to even small doses of asbestos can have a huge impact on their bodies, it can cause mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer,” Zamudio said. “Chronic exposure to lead can cause reproductive issues, kidney problems, and seizures. Mold can also contribute to pulmonary disease and asthma.”

Zamudio says these workers also face other issues on the job like wage theft or just a change in circumstances once they arrive at a job.

But there is a push for change for this group. A bill to essentially create a workforce has been introduced. This would establish a temporary immigrant status for workers, giving them proper documentation so they could do the work. Mostly though, the workers are left to support themselves and each other. They do things like teach each other how to stay safe, what masks and protective gear to wear, and how to identify toxins.

As for this workforce, Zamudio says that the industry continues to grow, thanks to climate change. Some billion-dollar companies are making really great profits. But the workers who are actually cleaning up and helping Americans rebuild their cities are actually facing the dangerous work conditions.

As the executive producer of WUSF's Florida Matters, I aim to create a show and podcast that makes all Floridians feel seen and heard. That's also my assignment as a producer for The Florida Roundup. In any role, my goal is always to amplify the voices often overlooked.
I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.