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Florida Construction and Farm Workers Endangered by Heat This Summer

Oct. 30, 2018

Florida Construction and Farm Workers Endangered by Heat This Summer

County-Level Data Shows Outdoor Workers in Florida Worked in Dangerous Heat From May to September

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This summer, the Florida heat put hundreds of thousands of construction and farm workers at risk of illness, injury and death, according to a new report (PDF) from Public Citizen, the Farmworker Association of Florida and an Emory University researcher. Between May 1 and Sept. 30, outdoor workers in every Florida county routinely faced dangerous heat, the report shows. This is the first study to show exactly how many days and hours workers were put at risk during a particular period of time. Heat has been a known hazard for workers for decades, but the problem is rapidly getting worse due to global warming. 

The report also reviews findings from the Girasoles Study, a recent study conducted by researchers at Emory University and the Farmworker Association of Florida showing the health harms to individual farmworkers from working in excessive heat. Many workers in the study met the criteria for acute kidney injury on at least one of the three study days, and most were dehydrated. A new video, Facing the Sun, highlights findings from the study. 

“It’s no surprise that Florida is hot, but the heat is harming Floridians, and it’s rapidly getting worse,” said David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s climate program and co-author of the report. “Outdoor workers routinely worked in dangerous heat this summer, and they were hurt as a result. Now more than ever, Florida workers need protection from dangerous heat – and policies to halt climate change.”

Florida already has one of the highest rates in the nation of heat-related hospitalizations – 1,112 in 2016 – and global warming is increasing the danger, especially to outdoor workers. The risk to any individual worker depends in part on their level of exertion. Virtually all farm and construction workers perform at least “moderate” work, the equivalent of normal walking and moderate lifting. Many, if not most, commonly perform some “heavy” work (heavy material handling, walking at a fast pace) and “very heavy” work (pick and shovel work) as well.

In the daytime hours (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) between May 1 and Sept. 30, outdoor workers in Florida faced dangerous heat on average 46 percent of the time for those engaged in moderate work, 67 percent of the time for those engaged in heavy labor and 76 percent of the time for those engaged in very heavy labor.

During the May-Sept. period, the 10 counties with the highest number of at-risk workers – Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Orange, Lee, Pinellas, Duval, Polk and Collier – experienced at least one hour of dangerous heat on more than 81 percent of days even for moderate labor, and on at least 97 percent of days for very heavy labor. Moreover, it was dangerously hot for workers engaged in moderate labor more than 45 percent of daytime hours in these counties and more than 75 percent of the daytime for those engaged in very heavy labor.

While their absolute numbers are fewer, at-risk outdoor workers make up between 15 and 34 percent of the workforce in 10 Florida counties: Hendry, DeSoto, Hardy, Glades, Okeechobee, Calhoun, Lafayette, Liberty, Levy and Hamilton. More than 56 percent of days between May 1 and Sept. 30 saw at least one hour of dangerous heat even for moderate labor in all of these counties.

When the human body cannot disperse heat quickly enough, it can lead to serious injury or death. Heat exhaustion symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness, muscle cramps, weakness and irritability. Untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to acute kidney injuries and heat stroke. Symptoms include confusion, slurred speech, seizures and loss of consciousness.

Public Citizen and partners are calling on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a rule protecting workers from dangerous heat. For most outdoor workers, the rule would require only simple interventions like shade, water and rest breaks. Two former OSHA administrators, more than 130 organizations and more than 60,000 people are backing a national heat standard.

“At what cost do we have abundant food to eat in this country? The cost to the farmworkers who feed us is their health. Exposure to pesticides and direct sun means most farmworkers wear long-sleeve shirts, even in the hottest temperatures that are increasing each year due to climate change. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed solution to pesticide exposure is to wear even more protective clothing – a ‘solution’ that would only put farmworkers at greater risk for heat stress and life-threatening heat stroke. Heat stress regulations are needed now to prevent a potential public health crisis. The people who feed us deserve no less,” said Jeannie Economos, pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida and co-author of the report.

“With record-breaking temperatures, sustainable growth and development cannot happen without considerations for workers. Mandated heat prevention strategies including heat illness training and heat illness preventative actions when the temperatures are high will provide a public service. I hope to see regulations that are informed by collaborative efforts and that can provide specific guidance to employers in how to protect workers from the heat, resulting in a healthy and productive workforce,” said Valerie Mac, Ph.D., RN and assistant professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University and co-author of the report.

“Climate change is affecting us now. My patients are poor and cannot afford the additional cost of medications because of the longer allergy season. Increased air pollution and heat worsens their asthma and lung disease. If they are lucky enough to have air conditioning, they can’t afford the utility bills,” said Dr. Cheryl L. Holder, program director and associate professor at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.

“Heat-related health problems for outdoor workers in Florida are only going to get worse as the number of dangerous heat days increases due to global climate change. This report once again points to the need for increased protections for outdoor workers,” said Jonathan Fried, executive director of WeCount!

“Florida already places in the top three states for workplace injuries and deaths each year. Increased danger to workers caused by heat stress will only guarantee that we increase our death toll and climb to number one unless immediate changes are made.” said Jeanette Smith, executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice.

During a telephone press conference experts unveiled this new research showing that outdoor workers in every county in Florida this summer faced dangerous heat.