A young farmworker tragically died of heat exposure in Homestead last summer while working in the fields. His death, like all heat-related fatalities, is one that could have been avoided, if Florida had enacted the same heat stress protections that several other states in the country have already implemented.
Instead of protecting outdoor workers, however, HB 433 – Workplace Heat Exposure Requirements – is a preemption bill sponsored by Rep. Tiffany Esposito (R-Fort Myers) that would prevent local governments from enacting heat protections.
In short, this bill means no mandated water breaks, no training on heat exposure and no information on how employees and employers can protect themselves. This puts not only farmworkers at extreme risk, but also roofers, construction workers, landscapers, road crews and others that labor under a scorching hot sun in extreme high temperatures in Florida’s long summer months.
The bill states that the powers of the local government must be “appropriately limited” based on the “potential negative impacts of local regulation.” It’s unclear what Esposto is referring to when citing “negative impacts” of heat protection regulations. In Miami-Dade, it’s estimated that heat causes $10 billion in annual losses due to reduced productivity. Two-thousand people die annually from excessive heat in their workplace, and nearly 170,000 additional people suffer heat-related injuries and accidents on the job.
It’s obvious that heat has far-reaching and dangerous implications for employees, but it’s also important to highlight the cost to employers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that the direct cost of a heat-related injury is $37,658 to employers, not to mention potential increases in worker compensation premiums that employers will likely have to pay as a result of heat-related workplace injuries.
Taxpayers also bear the brunt of heat-related injuries. It’s estimated that 10% of all frontline workers, which includes agricultural workers, are enrolled in Medicaid. Each injury resulting in a hospital stay means more tax money spent on heat-related health care expenses, ultimately resulting in higher premiums for everyone.
It’s clear that heat protections are in the best interest of not just agricultural workers but also the general public. However, it seems that Rep. Esposito is playing right into the hands of corporate lobbyists who continue to serve the interests of the wealthy at the expense of working Floridians. Lobbyists behind the bill include Florida Associated General Contractors Council, Associated Builders & Contractors of Florida, Inc (ABC), and Associated Industries of Florida, who are more concerned with unchecked development than the health and wellness of our communities.
Associate Builders & Contractors of Florida is also one of the big supporters of HB 460, which in its initial draft would have lowered age requirements for jobs in scaffolding and roofing, thus allowing 16 and 17 year olds to work in these industries. It’s clear that profits, not people, are the priority of ABC.
While there are many dangerous and profit-driven pieces of legislation up for vote this session, it’s important not to let these nefarious bills overshadow the important work of many community-based organizations who are working to protect the health and safety of Florida’s outdoor workers. The Farmworker Association of Florida is a grassroots, non-profit organization with more than 10,000 members and five offices in the state. They have been leading the charge, training hundreds of farmworkers on heat stress.
Their work includes over 10 years of community-based research in partnership with Emory University on the long-term impacts of heat exposure. They’ve been at the forefront of examining the compounded physiological stress that the body experiences from extreme heat in agricultural work. For example, their findings showed that farmworkers often reach an internal body temperature above 100 degrees F, which can damage internal organs and lead to renal failure. Additionally, higher temperatures can also accelerate the absorption of dangerous pesticides used on crops, further jeopardizing farmworkers’ health.
The Farmworker Association of Florida has utilized their experience from conducting these trainings and synthesized their research findings to guide the creation of HB 945, the Heat Illness Prevention bill, which is also moving through committee during this legislative session.
This past summer was the hottest on record, and with the current rate of climate change, we can only expect it to get hotter. Floridians deserve the right to a healthy and happy life in the Sunshine State, so it’s important we protect our most vulnerable workers from the unbearable heat.
Heat exposure protections for outdoor workers make both common sense and economic sense for Florida, one of the hottest states in the nation. Basic protections are essential. Farmworkers and all hardworking people deserve no less! Urge your legislators to vote no on HB 433 and yes on HB 945.
This piece was written by Dr. Chelsea Rivera of Central Florida Jobs with Justice and Dominique O’Connor and Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida. Both groups are members of the Florida Climate Equity Cohort, a group of 10 organizations across Florida working at the intersection of climate change and social, economic and racial justice.