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After DeSantis blocked local heat standards, federal officials tout national efforts in Florida

Several individuals gather for a group photo, with Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and U.S. Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su in the middle.
Elise Gregg
/
WLRN
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (center) stands next to U.S. Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su (left) along other officials and members of WeCount! in Pembroke Pines.

It’s summer, Florida is hot and workers don’t have local rules to regulate working conditions to prevent heat illness.

That’s because the state has blocked cities and counties in Florida from setting those rules. So now workers in construction, agriculture and other industries are looking elsewhere for help.

That help could come from the federal government.

On Monday, U.S. Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su visited Pembroke Pines to talk about an upcoming proposal by the Department of Labor which would create a national heat standard.

The proposal, which Su said would be submitted later this year, would include provisions requiring water, shade and paid rest periods.

“This is not a mystery as to why the harms occur,” Su told WLRN. “It’s also not difficult to prevent it – we just need to make sure that we get it done.”

READ MORE: DeSantis signs 'inhumane' bill removing local power over worker wages, heat protections

South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was also present along alongside other local and national leaders, called Florida the “poster child” for impacts of climate change like heat.

“We all know in South Florida with the heat, the way it’s been, staying hydrated is critical,” Schultz told WLRN at the meeting. “I can’t even imagine that we have employers that aren’t allowing that.”

As heat goes up, workers are more at risk for injury: up by 5% to 6% when the temperatures get into the 90s.

'I don't have a choice'

Workers with WeCount!, an organization of immigrant workers fighting for better working conditions, underlined the need for heat protections with dramatic stories from their personal experiences in Florida.

Javier Torres, a construction worker from Colombia, recalled how he fell down the stairs from the second floor of a project he was working on because of the heat.

He told officials about being at sites without first aid or proper medical care for workers suffering from the heat.

“I don’t have a choice,” he told the room in Spanish. “I have to work to move forward.”

Guillermo Leal, a Venezuelan who specializes in plumbing, also said he’d been on projects without proper medical tools, getting a scant 15-minute break for an 8-hour day.

Leal remembered colleagues fainting from the heat while working on the roof of a project. Another complained about issues with water availability and was later fired.

“They truly violate our rights as workers and immigrants,” Leal said in Spanish. “We need to work so we have a voice.”

READ MORE: Why isn’t extreme heat considered a disaster in the U.S.?

While a national heat standard is still pending, Su outlined about another initiative: the National Emphasis Program.

It’s under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and targets heat issues. It’s not the only one of its kind; OSHA implements them temporarily for a variety of hazards.

In this case, the heat-targeted NEP uses more general, existing federal standards to help prevent heat illness. It involves early interventions using some of the provisions of the suggested heat standard, as well as engaging in enforcement, compliance and outreach.

This includes inspections of facilities and OSHA interviews with workers and employers to ensure that resources and programs are in place to prevent heat-related injuries. Already, they have over 300 heat investigations in Florida alone.

Su said that workers should report issues to the Department of Labor, to aid them with preexisting investigations through the NEP.

"We can't do our job without you, and without you feeling safe enough to come forward when the law is being violated," she said. When the notice for the national standard proposal does come out, Su encouraged workers to share their thoughts on it also.

In the meantime, Su said the NEP is useful, but a national heat standard is needed for effectively keeping workers safe and in giving employers — and their employees — clear boundaries.

“The law obligates employers to keep workers safe, but sometimes, the more specific we can be about that, the clearer the standard is,” said Su.

Elise Catrion Gregg is a summer 2024 intern for WLRN. She is finishing her master's degree in criminal justice from Florida International University, where she also earned her bachelor's degree in journalism.
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