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A proposal getting bipartisan support seeks to protect Florida workers from heat-related sickness

A bill requires employers to take certain steps to help protect outside workers from the heat, but it doesn't include penalties for those who don't comply.
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A bill requires employers to take certain steps to help protect outside workers from the heat, but it doesn't include penalties for those who don't comply.

An effort that seeks to reduce heat-related illnesses and deaths in Florida is getting bipartisan support so far. SB 732 targets agriculture and other industries with outdoor workers.

“The intent of this bill is to provide consistent standards for employers and employees on how to prevent heat illness, how to recognize the signs of heat illness, and what actions to take,” said Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral. She says she filed the bill to stress the importance of education and training. The bill received support from workers and business owners who addressed the Senate Agriculture Committee Wednesday morning.

“Our members labor for long hours in scorching temperatures. They have grit and they have strength. But what they don't have is a commonsense heat standard, a best practices model to address the dangers of sunstroke,” said Esteban Wood, calling the legislation a pro-life bill.

Wood works with We Count, a membership-based organization in South Miami Dade County. The group’s members include agriculture and construction workers.

“Florida heat waves have gotten more frequent. Our sun has gotten more intense,” Wood said. “For outdoor workers, an honest day's work has gotten all the more dangerous. In fact, outdoor workers are 20 times more likely to die of heat exposure than the general population. Here's what we know. Outdoor workers across the country are dying needless and senseless deaths.”

Excessive heat can cause heat stroke and death if not treated properly. It also exacerbates existing health problems like asthma, kidney failure, and heart disease.

Karen Woodall with the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy reminded the committee that two years ago, the legislature unanimously passed a heat illness prevention bill (HB 7011) for student athletes.

“It came after a young high school student football player died,” Woodall said, “because the things that were recommended to be available to prevent those kinds of deaths weren't there because they weren't required.”

The bill targets industries where employees regularly work in an outdoor environment, including farming and landscaping. It requires training for supervisors and employees to recognize signs of heat illness and provide appropriate first-aid measures.

“The focus of this legislation is to provide education and training through a partnership of employers and employees working together so that we prevent, we’re ahead of the game, we're proactive, and we prevent future deaths,” Woodall said. “We don't want to wait for people to die and then have lawsuits and then have fines and penalties. We're trying to prevent these deaths.”

Under the bill, employers must provide a shaded area for workers and plenty of cool drinking water throughout the workday. They must also ensure that employees in high-heat conditions take 10-minute breaks every 2 hours.

“On a job site there is, you know, a will to do what it takes to get the job done, and oftentimes we're willing to sacrifice and take those steps without thinking of how we can make sure we're being safe in that process,” said Daniel Kurczi, president of the Volusia/Flagler AFL-CIO. He told the committee he has worked in construction most of his life. “I think the content of this bill and the training that would go with it would help not only myself, but the folks that we work with to recognize the effects of sun and heatstroke and know what to do with them.”

“My great regret, I have several, was I didn't talk him into staying home that day. It was the middle of August,” said Constance Albright, a resident of Eustis. She told the committee her husband died in 1995 after suffering heat stroke and hitting his head -- while helping build a three-story house. “As a memorial to him, I never hire any outdoor worker, painter, yard person and carpenter to work in the summer in my property.”

An analysis by committee staff says heat is the leading cause of death among all weather-related events. Workers in agriculture and construction are at the highest risk, and it’s also a problem for indoor workers who don’t have adequate climate-controlled environments.

Rodriguez closed the discussion by saying there are no penalties in her bill for employers that don’t comply. “I don't want people to think that this is about punishing people or about coming after (them),” Rodriguez said. “It's really about health and wellness and making sure that people are protected.”

The U.S. Department of Labor says the heat is becoming even more dangerous as 18 of the last 19 years were the hottest on record.

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