Florida baffles experts by banning local water break rules as deadly heat is on the rise

Sweltering summer heat might have been more bearable for outdoor workers in Miami-Dade County under a proposal that suggested mandated breaks in the shade on the hottest days – but Florida said no.

The county's proposal to establish heat rules for workers has been preempted by a new law: Florida has joined Texas in banning such local rules for outdoor workers. Meanwhile, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington have passed laws giving more protections to construction workers who work in extreme heat.

Florida's new law has frustrated and angered some experts and advocates for construction workers and farmworkers. As summers get hotter over the years, outdoor workers will need more protections, not fewer, said Luigi Guadarrama, political director of Sierra Club Florida said.

The law will primarily affect low-income workers of color, Guadarrama said: “Currently, the state legislature has no interest in protecting workers."

Other advocates also say more protections for outdoor workers are needed.

Extreme heat kills and maims: Here are some of its victims from across the US.

Some farmworkers in Florida aren't allowed to take breaks, don't have access to shade and are pushed to work faster, said Jeannie Economos, pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator at the Farmworker Association of Florida. Some are afraid to drink water because they don't have access to a bathroom. Meanwhile, supervisors discipline them for trying to take breaks when they feel overheated, she said.

"We understand the realities of the workplace and that's why we need mandated protections, because the employer isn't going to do it, and the workers are too afraid to ask for it," Economos said.

Florida says federal rules protect outdoor workers

Federal laws already prohibit unsafe work conditions, which makes added local rules unnecessary, supporters of the new law say. The ban on local heat rules is a part of a larger push to help businesses save money, a move that comes with assurances of protecting jobs. The bill also prevents local governments from making higher minimum wages than the state's.

Republican state Rep. Tiffany Esposito, who sponsored the House version of the bill, told reporters that her husband has worked in South Florida’s construction sector for two decades and she knows the industry takes worker safety seriously.

"This is very much a people-centric bill,” Esposito said. “If we want to talk about Floridians thriving, they do that by having good job opportunities. And if you want to talk about health and wellness, and you want to talk about how we can make sure that all Floridians are healthy, you do that by making sure that they have a good job. And in order to provide good jobs, we need to not put businesses out of business."

USA TODAY has reached out to Esposito for comment.

Democratic leaders in Florida are unsurprised by the new law. Rep. Fentrice Driskell, minority leader of the Florida House of Representatives, said Republicans in red states have systematically been taking power away from local governments as part of an effort to limit the influence of left-leaning cities.

“This bill is just so mean spirited and cruel,” she said.

City worker Glen Peterson wipes the sweat from his face as the feel like temperature exceeded 100 degrees while working with a crew on June 28, 2023 in Lake Worth Beach, Florida.
City worker Glen Peterson wipes the sweat from his face as the feel like temperature exceeded 100 degrees while working with a crew on June 28, 2023 in Lake Worth Beach, Florida.

Though the bill says local governments must adopt the state's stance on heat protections, Florida doesn't have any statewide standard.

Some lawmakers don't want a patchwork of heat laws covering the state, but they haven't moved to establish a statewide standard, according to Esteban Wood, policy director for WeCount, a nonprofit organization of immigrant agriculture, construction and domestic workers that advocates for more heat protections.

"We will definitely see preventable illnesses and preventable deaths this summer," Wood said.

The federal government does have rules about safety in workplaces that apply to summer heat.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's “general duty clause" requires employers to provide workplaces “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” That includes heat-related hazards that are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, but specific guidance on how to do that is only recommended.

Additionally, some OSHA investigations happen after a death has already occured. When that happens, it "doesn't do any good for the dead person or the dead person's family," Economos said.

Florida worker's heat-related death was preventable, OSHA says

This week, OSHA announced it had cited farm labor contractor McNeill Labor Management with one serious violation for exposing workers to heat-related hazards while working in direct sunlight, resulting in the heatstroke death of a 26-year-old man in September 2023 in South Florida. The company could face $27,655 in proposed penalties.

That death could have been prevented, both OSHA and Economos said, if the man's employer had implemented heat safety measures, including a process to acclimatize his body to working in the extreme conditions over time.

“This young man’s life ended on his first day on the job because his employer did not fulfill its duty to protect employees from heat exposure, a known and increasingly dangerous hazard,” said OSHA area director Condell Eastmond in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Mandatory education on the signs of heat injury and first aid practices also could have helped, because the man who died was working 20 minutes away from the nearest road, too far for emergency responders to get to him, Economos said.

Other states pass worker protections as Florida and Texas do the opposite

Federal protections from OSHA aren't enough to adequately protect workers, according to some lawmakers in California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington – states that have enhanced heat rules for outdoor workers.

California requires employers to provide water and shade to employees above 80 degrees Fahrenheit and provide additional protections for construction workers when temperatures reach above 95 degrees, for example.

And some local municipalities in other states have similar laws.

In Arizona’s Maricopa County where at least 645 people died from heat last year, Phoenix also recently passed a law requiring employers to grant outdoor construction workers and city contractors and subcontractors who work outdoors relief from the sun and access to water and air conditioning.

But Florida isn't alone in bucking the trend toward more protections for outdoor workers. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill last June blocking counties and cities from implementing existing or passing new laws that require construction sites to offer construction laborers who work in the heat rest and water breaks for at least 10 minutes every four hours, overriding year-long local laws in Austin and Dallas that offered workers protections.

Extreme heat is deadly and getting worse

Extreme heat kills more people in the United States each year than all forms of extreme weather combined, said Richard Keller, professor and chair of the medical history and bioethics department at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

In a changing climate not only are the days of extreme heat becoming “more frequent and more intense, they’re also longer lasting,” Keller said.

Communities across the nation are reeling under a sharp increase in the number of days with dangerously high heat over the past three decades, according to an analysis by Climate Central.

The Climate Central study found at least 232 locations in the nation experience at least 20 additional heat days per year than they did in 1970, when using a location-specific scale that indicates the temperature above which heat-related health risks rise sharply.

Some have seen double or triple that increase, raising concerns for those people who are at most at risk, including people over the age of 75, under one year and those who work outside or in extreme heat conditions inside. Twenty-two cities saw an increase of 40 or more days when heat-related risks were higher.

Four Florida cities are on Climate Central’s top 10 list:

  • Panama City - 60 days

  • Tampa - 58 days

  • Sarasota - 54 days

  • Miami - 49 days.

“As the extreme heat days go up and up every year, it’s becoming more dangerous,” Keller said. “Increased regulations are really a critical protection for workers.”

Although people who work outside tend to be younger and healthier than those we typically imagine to be your average heat death victim, Keller said deaths among outdoor workers tend to be the first reported when temperatures rise because of their exposure.

During intense heat waves, the deaths of outdoor workers “are becoming the sentinel cases, indicating there’s going to be a big uptick in mortality coming,” he said.

Of the 1,600 heat-related deaths reported in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said nine states had 20 or more deaths. Arizona led with 426 and Washington, which experienced a record-breaking heat dome that year, was second with 171 deaths. Florida was ninth.

Florida’s rate of heat-related deaths rose 88% between 2019 and 2022, according to a report from the nonprofit National Conference of Citizenship’s Pandemic to Prosperity published last July.

And the impacts of heat don’t stop in Florida, Guadarrama said. In the coming years extreme heat will become more common all across the U.S.

“This is going to affect everybody at some point. Florida's just the frontline,” he said.

Contributing: Samantha Neely and Anthony Robledo, USA TODAY NETWORK

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida bans local heat rules for outdoor workers, baffling experts