By Willy Blackmore
Originally appeared in Word in Black
Summers are hot and sticky in South Florida, and that was particularly the case this year in Miami, where the heat index topped 100 degrees for a record 46 days in a row, and the beach offered no respite, as ocean temperatures climbed to record highs.
In the midst of the summer heat, on July 6, Efraín López García was working on a farm in Homestead, Florida, just south of Miami. García wasn’t feeling well after working through the morning with no breaks, and his cousin pulled him aside to rest. The cousin went to grab some water, came back, and found García collapsed. The 29-year-old was dead, the second farmworker in the state to be killed by heat-related issues this summer.
Miami-Dade County, which includes Homestead, was on track to be the first local government in the country to adopt heat-related protections for outdoor workers—protections that might have saved Garcia’s life. But on Tuesday, the county commission deferred the bill, which now won’t be reconsidered until next March.
It was clear from the debate, as the Miami Herald reported, that commissioners did not want to aggravate the agriculture and construction industries, which would have been subjected to the proposed regulations.
“This is an overreaching and outrageous heat sanction on only two industries,” Commissioner Danielle Cohen Higgins said. “This ordinance could potentially kill industry.”
Commissioner Marleine Bastien, a co-sponsor of the bill, said there she has never seen so much pushback but believes that the commission will be able to pass it in March. “It is not easy, but I don’t think it is impossible because there seems to be a belief that protecting workers will kill the industry, will kill business. It is contrary. We know that when workers are healthy, they are more productive,” she said.
The bill would require farms and builders to provide water for workers and 15-minute breaks in shaded areas on extreme-heat days (though the threshold for when the protections would kick in was subject to some debate). Employers would also be required to train workers to recognize symptoms of heat-related illnesses.
Currently, no federal labor laws protect workers from extreme heat, and while some states, including California, have their own regulations, Florida does not. But with dangerously hot weather becoming increasingly common, Miami-Dade is not alone in thinking of new regulations.
President Biden’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is working on new federal protections, which may extend to some indoor workers too. “Workers in agriculture and construction are often at highest risk, but the problem affects all workers exposed to heat, including indoor workers without climate-controlled environments,” according to a 2021 White House announcement.
While Miami-Dade County is 17% Black, the vast majority of agricultural workers are Latinx (there is, however, a long-standing practice of bringing Jamaican farm workers to the state on H2 visas), and Black workers are not generally well-represented in construction work either.
But many indoor jobs that are prone to overheating, like warehouse work, are often done by Black workers. For example, 60% of the almost 400,000 workers Amazon hired for its most poorly paid jobs between 2018 and 2020 were Black or Latinx, according to a Seattle Times investigation. Much like inadequately cooled delivery trucks, warehouses often use HVAC systems that can’t keep up with sweltering summer temperatures—sometimes causing indoor highs to outstrip outdoor ones.
A bill introduced in Congress this summer would require OSHA “to establish a permanent, federal standard to protect workers against occupational exposure to excessive heat, both in indoor and outdoor environments.”
But even if it did pass, the Miami-Dade debate indicates that heat-related protections are only as good as the definitions they use for extreme heat. When the Miami-Dade County Commission first considered its proposal this summer, it required a heat index of 90 degrees before the protections would kick in. The deferred bill raised the threshold to 95 degrees, with no consideration for high humidity, which can make lower temperatures feel far hotter.
On average, the heat exceeds 95 degrees in Miami only about four days per year, according to Islander News, compared to 163 days annually when the heat index hits 90. On July 6, the day Efraín López Garcia died, the temperature in Homestead hit a high of about 93 degrees — two degrees shy of the revised threshold.