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Miami-Dade's push to give outdoor workers extreme heat protections passes first hurdle

Members of WeCount, an organization of outdoor workers demanding workplace protections against extreme heat, chant before a news conference, Tuesday, July 18, 2023, at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in Miami.
Wilfredo Lee
Members of WeCount, an organization of outdoor workers demanding workplace protections against extreme heat, chant before a news conference, Tuesday, July 18, 2023, at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in Miami.

The ordinance calls for a three-tiered system of protections, including a break in shade and safety training. It next goes to a committee meeting, then a full county commission vote.

A push to give outdoor workers increased protections during episodes of extreme heat has passed its first test in Miami-Dade County, with the county commission voting unanimously to advance the item.

The proposal calls for a three-tiered system of protecting outdoor workers from extreme heat conditions. First, the proposed ordinance would grant outdoor workers the right to a 10-minute rest in the shade for every two hours worked when the heat index rises above 90 degrees.

The ordinance would also provide increased heat safety training for outdoor workers and managers, and the creation of a new county office to keep outdoor workers safe.

The proposed ordinance passed 11-0. It still needs to pass a committee vote and a final vote in front of the full commission to become law. Similar proposals have failed in recent years.

More than 300,000 people work outside in Miami-Dade, while the new rules would only cover the roughly 80,000 who work in construction and agriculture. Outdoor workers are 35 times more likely to die of heat-related illness than the general population.

The proposal comes in the midst of a historic heatwave in South Florida that has alarmed climate researchers. This past weekend the National Weather Service declared the first-ever excessive heat warning in Miami-Dade history.

“We're seeing more and more people come in with diseases and illnesses that are related to heat stress. And so I’m seeing it in real time,” Dr. Arman Henderson, a University of Miami physician who runs clinics for low-income residents, told commissioners on Tuesday.

At least two agricultural workers have died this year from heat-related issues in South Florida, records showed.

In 2020, the last year for which data is available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention registered 41 heat-related deaths in Florida. Arizona registered 373 that year, while California had 128, Nevada 100 and Texas 82.

Local data provided by the Miami-Dade medical examiner's office shows that between 2016 and 2023, 19 deaths have been attributed to extreme heat. Of them, an incident from 2016 was related to outdoor work, when a landscaper died from heat stroke.

Most heat-related deaths in Miami-Dade have been from elderly adults or young children being left in hot cars. In 2017, a 16-year-old died of a heat stroke during a June football practice.

Water, shade and rest

The agricultural worker rights group WeCount! has been spearheading a campaign for outdoor worker protections in Miami-Dade since 2021, in a campaign called "Quė Calor!" ("how hot!").

In surveys the group conducted among agricultural workers, 51% said they were not allowed to rest in the shade even during the hottest part of the workday. Only 15% reported that they had ample access to safe drinking water and 69% self-reported that they experienced signs or symptoms of a heat-related illness.

“We think outdoor workers can’t wait any longer,” executive director Oscar Londoño said at a rally supporting the proposed protections in late June. “We’ve been waiting for years and we’ve been demanding basic life saving protections like water, shade and rest.”

According to age-adjusted estimates by the CDC, about 4,200 Floridians visited the emergency room for heat-related illnesses in 2021.

Workers who labor outdoors are in need of protections, say advocates. State law offers no extreme heat protections for outdoor workers, even as state emergency officials urge residents to take safety precautions during the ongoing heat wave.

“It’s time we do right by them and afford them the basic, lifesaving protections they deserve: water, shade and a break,” said Santra Denis, executive director of the Miami Workers Center, an advocacy group.

“We are ground zero right here in Miami-Dade County and in Florida for experiencing the impacts of climate change and should be leading the nation in solutions for the people, our people,our workers.”

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.