Florida Legislators Ban Local Heat Protections for Millions of Outdoor Workers

Advocates characterize the bill as “cruel and inhumane” as the global climate warms.

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A woman works on a farm as it rains with high humidity during a heatwave in Homestead, Fla. on July 15, 2023. Credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images
A woman works on a farm as it rains with high humidity during a heatwave in Homestead, Fla. on July 15, 2023. Credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

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ORLANDO, Fla.—Even if the often unbearable Florida temperatures started creeping up toward triple digits, Maria Leticia Pineda could usually be found clad in at least three layers of clothing to protect her skin from sunburns while she worked in an outdoor plant nursery.

Pineda spent 20 years working 11-hour days as she helped grow fruits like strawberries, blueberries and pineapples, as well as vegetables, ferns and other plants. But by 2018, between headaches that she believes were exacerbated by the heat, recurring pains in her right elbow and back and aches just about everywhere else, she’d had enough.

“I love agriculture and working with people and the environment, but I stopped because it’s so hot,” said Pineda, who is 51. “With the heat, it won’t kill you right away. I’ve felt the struggle for so long and the damage stays with you.”

Maria Leticia Pineda pictured in July 2018, shortly before she stopped working outdoors. Credit: Courtesy of Maria Leticia Pineda
Maria Leticia Pineda pictured in July 2018, shortly before she stopped working outdoors. Credit: Courtesy of Maria Leticia Pineda

The state’s 2 million outdoor workers are poised to have less access to accommodations like water and shady rest breaks under a bill the Florida Legislature recently approved.

The measure prohibits local governments from establishing heat protections for outdoor workers. It comes after commissioners in Miami-Dade County considered a proposal last year that would have compelled construction and agriculture companies to provide water and rest breaks when the heat index there rises to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. The proposal also would have required training in heat illness and first aid, but it was never brought to a vote.

The new state legislation preempts any such local provisions. It was approved earlier this month, on the final day of the annual session, but still requires the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has described himself as “not a global warming person.” His climate change policy has focused on fortifying the state’s infrastructure against rising seas and increasingly damaging hurricanes, but he has done little to address the human-caused emissions contributing to hotter temperatures.

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Florida lacks any statewide heat protections for outdoor workers. Separate legislation that would have provided for such protections, which farmworkers and other advocates have pushed for years, died in a Senate committee. The protections in Miami-Dade County would have been the first implemented by a local government anywhere in the nation. 

Kristin Dahl, principal climate scientist for the Union for Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy organization, characterized the proposed ban as deadly.

“This bill is cruel and inhumane,” she said of the preemption measure. “To try to prevent a locality from protecting its workers, I see it as a grave mistake.”

Lives at Risk

Dominique O’Connor, of the Farmworkers Association of Florida, said the bill might only worsen the already potentially perilous conditions for those who spend much of their day working outside.

“Workers’ lives are at risk,” O’Connor said. “If you don’t have the ability to create any sort of regulations at the local level, and you also don’t have any regulations at the state level, there’s no protections for workers—and then there’s no possibility of protections for workers.” 

There also are no federal protections for outdoor workers against heat, although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is authorized to enforce the so-called “general duty clause” of the OSH Act of 1970, which requires employers to provide a workplace free of “recognized hazards” that can cause “death or serious physical harm.” OSHA is in the midst of developing heat-specific standards, although the process could take several years to complete.

Workers transplant small germinated plants into pots at a plant nursery on Nov. 2, 2023 in Homestead, Fla. Credit: Eva Marie Uzcategui/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Workers transplant small germinated plants into pots at a plant nursery on Nov. 2, 2023 in Homestead, Fla. Credit: Eva Marie Uzcategui/The Washington Post via Getty Images

California, Oregon and Washington are the only states with formal heat protections for outdoor workers, and recent research indicates the California standards have had a positive effect on the rate of heat injuries and illnesses there, although more enforcement is needed, Dahl said.

In 2020, Florida legislators passed a bill requiring protective measures for student athletes who practice and compete in hot conditions. Under the terms of the law, schools must provide regular heat stress monitoring, set aside spaces for hydration and cooling and have a defibrillator on site.

Known as the Zachary Martin Act, the law is named for a Fort Myers high schooler who died in 2017 after running sprints with his football teammates.

In Florida, 2023 tied with 2015 as the warmest year on record since 1895, according to the Office of the State Climatologist. Both July and August set records as the hottest months ever observed in the state. The highest temperature recorded was 111.2 degrees Fahrenheit in June in Clewiston, a farming community south of Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest lake.

Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the United States. Excess heat affects the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature, which can lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Heat also can exacerbate nervous system, respiratory, cardiovascular and diabetes-related conditions and even can affect children’s ability to learn.

“We know that exposure to high temperatures affects us physiologically,” said Kristie L. Ebi, a professor of global health at the University of Washington. “And it’s a concern, particularly for outdoor workers, to make sure that they have access to the resources that they need: They’ve got access to sufficient water. They can take breaks when they need breaks, but they can engage in the activities or the actions that will help protect them from getting into trouble with the heat.”

Ebi said that people who are pregnant and those with chronic health conditions, particularly heart disease and respiratory diseases, are at even greater risk of being harmed by high temperatures.

“There’s only so much people can acclimatize to,” Ebi said. 

‘Florida Is Ground Zero’

Warmer temperatures also can affect mental health. The mind suffers because of the physical discomfort. Heat can change the brain by altering signaling and increasing inflammation. This can increase mental fatigue, aggression and even suicide rates.

“Climate change is real. The planet is getting hotter. Florida is ground zero for this, and instead of accepting that reality and taking action to mitigate risk we continue to ignore it for the benefit of large corporations,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who added a failed amendment to the preemption measure calling for a heat stress study, as a step toward statewide standards.

“It’s incredibly upsetting knowing that the brunt of this economy, whether it’s construction or farming, that the workers who are carrying that weight on their shoulders are predominantly immigrants, predominantly people of color and do not receive adequate protections,” she said.

Shauna Junco, an infectious disease pharmacist and board president for the Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said if legislators were concerned about local governments creating an inconsistent patchwork of protections for outdoor workers, they could have prevented that situation by approving statewide standards. Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, who sponsored the preemption measure, did not respond to requests for comment.

“We recognize that climate change has already created health issues that will get worse over the next 10 years,” Junco said. “That is the case for extreme heat in Florida, and we have to adapt by creating good practices and policies to protect everyone in our state.”

“Climate change is real. The planet is getting hotter. Florida is ground zero for this, and instead of accepting that reality and taking action to mitigate risk we continue to ignore it for the benefit of large corporations.”

Dahl pointed out the protections workers are calling for are relatively simple and that many of their jobs are crucial to our society, involving things like harvesting and delivering our food and constructing and repairing the roads and bridges we traverse every day.

“When we don’t provide these workers protections, it’s bad for the workers themselves and their health can suffer,” she said. “It’s also bad for our society. We need this workforce to be healthy and productive because we all depend on them, whether we are aware of it and thinking about it on a daily basis or not.”

“This is a real equity issue we’re talking about,” she added. “We have to ask ourselves how sustainable our society is if we’re treating our lowest-paid workers in this kind of way.”

Maria Leticia Pineda, pictured in 2022.
Maria Leticia Pineda, pictured in 2022.

Before she stopped working outdoors six years ago, Maria Leticia Pineda would regularly spend up to 11 hours outside during her shifts. Her weekly take home pay, she said, was $299.

Since leaving her work at a nursery in Apopka, a town of about 55,000 people about an half hour northwest of Orlando, Pineda has started working indoors at a local hospital’s laundry department.

She’s also done something else: She volunteers with the Farmworkers Association and helps to lead training sessions for workers so they can learn how to identify the signs of dehydration and heat-related illnesses.

Pineda’s message is simple. “You don’t have to be a doctor to see if somebody feels sick,” she said. “If you know the symptoms, you’re gonna know something is happening. But when you don’t know what the symptoms of this heat are…” Her voice trailed off.

A native of El Salvador who became a U.S. citizen after arriving in Florida three decades ago, Pineda said that it took her at least 10 years of working outside before she gained enough experience to see how heat affects the human body, and when it was time to help an ailing co-worker.

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“It’s hard because when people are working outside, they don’t have those resources,” she said of information about heat-related illnesses.

Pineda said she is concerned that other states might follow Florida’s lead and pass similar measures to limit the possible protections for outdoor workers.

For now, though, she said she and her fellow volunteers are continuing to focus on outreach and education.

Asked about her next steps—regardless of whether DeSantis signs the legislature’s bill—Pineda said: “Call the community and share with the community what is the best for the people, you know? I think we’re, as we say, ‘continue la lucha’—we continue the fight.”

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