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Florida farmworkers exposed to deadly heat fight for protections

The farmworkers, most of them Latino, are advocating for a municipal heat standard ensuring outdoor workers have access to water, shade and breaks as extreme heat advisories worsen.
A migrant worker on a farm in Homestead, Fla., on May 11, 2023.
A migrant worker on a farm in Homestead, Fla., on May 11.Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images file

Hundreds of farmworkers and others working in predominantly outdoor jobs in South Florida packed a Miami-Dade County board meeting Tuesday, demanding the implementation of a municipal heat standard ensuring workers access to drinking water, shade and breaks on the job.

The effort was led by WeCount!, a membership labor organization in South Florida that has been organizing around the issue for nearly two years through its ¡Qué Calor! campaign.

Its fight to set heat safety standards in the outdoor workplaces has gained a new sense of urgency as the city has endured 37 consecutive days of hot temperatures that often feel above 100 degrees.

Historic heat waves have already killed at least one farmworker in South Florida this year; he had expressed feeling fatigued and leg pain.

A community leader with We Count!, Maria Ramirez, a Guatemalan worker living in Homestead, advocated in favor of a heat standard at the hearing alongside two of her young children.

"If parents die because of the extreme heat, who will take care of our children?" Ramirez said in Spanish. "I have lived through the heat."

Medical professionals have long said that having access to water and shade and taking breaks from long hours of intense physical labor can protect workers from heat illness.

"It is very hard to work 10 hours under the sun without access to water, shade or the bathroom," Ramirez said. "It’s not fair to me.”

Workers on a farm on July 15, 2023, during a heat wave in Homestead, Fla.
Workers on a farm during a heat wave Saturday in Homestead, Fla.Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images

An ordinance to create the heat standard passed its first reading with a unanimous vote from the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, a few hours after it was filed.

The matter now "gets referred to a committee hearing in September," said Oscar Londoño, a co-director of WeCount! "It’s definitely good news for the campaign and a step forward."

The hearing has been tentatively scheduled for Sept. 11.

The tentative hearing presents a small glimmer of hope considering that the federal government has been stuck in a yearslong process to draft heat safety rules that would protect workers from dangerously high temperatures.

At least six states have implemented regulations to guarantee workers access to water, shade and breaks. But the Miami ordinance stands out because it would also provide workers with the following:

  • A heat exposure safety program to educate workers and their supervisors about the risks of heat exposure and best practices to minimize heat-related illness.
  • A notice of employee rights in multiple languages to inform workers about their rights under the municipal heat standard, as well as the process for filing complaints.
  • The establishment of a county Office of Workplace Health and Safety to help enforce labor protections and support employers and workers.

"If enacted, this countywide heat standard will be the first-of-its-kind in the entire United States," WeCount! claimed in a news release Tuesday.

Image: Gelder Perez, 10, center, carries a protest flag as he walks with his uncle Leonel Perez, center right, on the first day of a five-day trek aimed at highlighting the Fair Food Program, in an effort to pressure retailers to leverage their purchasing power to improve conditions for farmworkers, on March 14, 2023, in Pahokee, Fla.
Marchers on the first day of a five-day trek in Pahokee, Fla., on March 14 to highlight the Fair Food Program, an effort to pressure retailers to leverage their purchasing power to improve conditions for farmworkers.Rebecca Blackwell / AP

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an average of 702 heat-related deaths and nearly 68,000 emergency room visits related to heat illness every year. On average, about 9,200 people are hospitalized every year because of heat exhaustion.

At least 344 workers died from heat exposure from 2011 to 2019, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To reduce the numbers of deaths and injuries due to heat-related issues, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration created an emphasis program to help employers better protect their employees last year.

“Heat is the silent killer. We want people to understand it’s no joke,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told MSNBC anchor José Díaz-Balart on Monday.