Harvesting crops or building a house in the Florida sun is grueling work, and a new report shows that it’ll only get more miserable and unsafe for workers as climate change sends temperatures soaring.
By at least one safety standard, it was too hot for Floridians to do very heavy labor (like digging with a shovel) for at least an hour a day almost every single day this summer.
Unworkable, a report from Public Citizen and the Farmworker Association of Florida released Tuesday, spells out the risks to the state’s large population of outdoor workers, particularly construction and agricultural workers.
The Sunshine State has one of the highest rates of heat-related hospitalizations in the nation, according to the report. That number is likely an undercount, since strokes, heart attacks, asthma and even mental illnesses can be aggravated by high heat.
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“You talk to farmworkers and they know it’s getting hotter. They feel it and they’re worried,” said Jeannie Economos, the environmental health project coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida.
They have no laws — at the state or national level — to protect them from heat stress, which is predicted to become more of a problem as global temperatures climb. Average temperatures in the contiguous U.S. have already risen more than one degree Fahrenheit since 1986, and a new United Nations report said that if the world doesn’t halt that rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century the consequences could be catastrophic.
In July, several advocacy groups, including the Farmworker Association of Florida and Public Citizen, asked the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt a rule to protect workers from heat based on recommendations from top work safety groups and similar to those used by the U.S. military.
For outdoor workers, that would mean regular shaded breaks and enough water to stay properly hydrated, something that isn’t guaranteed or even standard practice at every workplace.
A survey of 300 nursery workers in Homestead by the organization WeCount! showed that more than half of surveyed workers weren’t allowed to rest in the shade and 69 percent had experienced symptoms of heat-related illness. WeCount! Executive Director Jonathan Fried said 15 percent of workers said they weren’t given water to drink.
“Many employers won’t do the right thing willingly,” he said. “We need stronger protection for workers, or workers will be in ever greater danger as the heat increases in Florida and around the country.”
The legendarily hot Florida sun is already a problem for outdoor workers, many of whom are clustered in South Florida. Miami-Dade County has more agricultural and construction workers than any other county, nearly 100,000 people, according to the latest census.
Farmworkers said they limit their water intake so they won’t have to go to the bathroom as much and possibly miss production quotas, said Economos.
“Workers get paid by the piece,” she said. “If they stop to drink water it means they aren’t able to produce as much or as quickly.”
Emory University’s Girasoles Study involved 250 agricultural workers in Central and South Florida, including Homestead. Researchers gave workers temperature pills that measured their core body temperature from the inside, strapped heart rate monitors to them, took blood and urine samples and surveyed them about the kind of work they do and how they stay cool.
Half the workers started the day dehydrated, and three quarters finished it that way.
Four in five workers had a core body temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit at least one study day — the tipping point for risk of serious heat injury. One in three workers had acute kidney injury at stage one or higher on at least one study day.
One man showed up to participate in the study and was immediately hospitalized, Economos said. His kidneys were in such bad shape he’s been on dialysis ever since.
Crank the heat up another few degrees on average and the concerns multiply. An analysis by Climate Central shows Miami experienced an average of zero “danger days” — days where the combination of heat and humidity make it feel like 105 degrees Fahrenheit outside — in 2010 to 2014. That jumps to an average of 132 danger days a year in 2025 to 2034 if nothing is done to check global warming.
In Saudi Arabia, outdoor work is banned from noon to 3 p.m. for three months of the year to protect workers from dangerous conditions. Public Citizen’s Managing Director David Arkush said rising global temperatures could spread that policy around the globe — maybe even to Florida.
“We would be losing most of the outdoor labor in the south during the summer by the end of the century,” he said. “In the hottest places, including probably South Florida, even nighttime work could become too hot.”