Miami-Dade County mulls the strictest workplace heat rules in the U.S.

Martha Lopez, a farm worker, poses for a photo at a farm on November 2, 2023 in Homestead, Florida. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/For The Washington Post)

Miami-Dade County commissioners on Tuesday will decide whether to establish the first county-level workplace heat protections in the United States, a test of whether local governments can protect workers from increasingly dangerous temperatures in the absence of federal rules.

As climate change ratchets up global temperatures, most of the roughly 32 million people who work outdoors in the United States are not protected by any workplace heat safety regulations.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published voluntary guidelines on heat safety, but these are not enforceable. Only three states — California, Washington and Oregon — require companies to give outdoor workers breaks to cool down on hot days. No states in the South, where workplace heat deaths are most common, have created their own heat safety rules.

This summer smashed heat records in Miami-Dade County and for the entire planet. As temperatures rise in summers to come, scientists and health-care researchers predict that record-breaking heat and workplace deaths will become more common.

“The climate crisis will lead to more workers in more industries being exposed to extreme heat,” said David Michaels, an epidemiology professor at George Washington University. “Local ordinances like the one being considered in Miami-Dade are of great importance and are likely to save lives.”

The proposed rules in Miami-Dade would be among the strictest in the country. They would require construction and agriculture companies to train their workers to recognize and respond to signs of heat illness and, on hot days, to give workers clean water, a 10-minute break every two hours and a shaded area to cool down. Companies that fail to follow the rules would face fines of up to $2,000 per violation.

Worker advocates say Miami-Dade County’s rules could be a model for local governments across the country to follow as they wait for OSHA to create an enforceable federal heat standard. The Labor Department started that rulemaking process in 2021, but the rules could take years to finish — if they ever take effect at all.

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“Counties across the country are looking to Miami-Dade as an example of what government can do locally,” said Oscar Londoño, co-executive director of WeCount, a worker advocacy group lobbying for the local heat ordinance. “We can’t wait for the federal government to take action.”

But the bill faces an uncertain future. Industry lobbyists pushing back against the proposal have watered down the bill’s language and peeled off support from commissioners. If it passes, it could be nullified by a Florida state legislature that has been willing to preempt local ordinances that go beyond state law.

“Its anti-business sentiment quite frankly sends a message to everyone in the county and the rest of the country that Miami does not want businesses to survive, much less thrive,” said Arianna Cabrera de Oña, chief people officer for Costa Farms, which cultivates 5,000 acres across Florida and the Carolinas.

Heat’s uncertain toll on workers

It’s hard to quantify the toll heat takes on U.S. workers. According to official records from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 815 workers died and 70,000 more were seriously injured by heat stress between 1992 and 2017.

But health researchers — and the Labor Department — say those numbers are likely an undercount. “There’s no question there are many people who die from heat or are affected by heat where the fatality or the illness case is never reported or recorded as heat-related,” said Michaels, who was OSHA administrator from 2009 to 2017.

Heat also contributes indirectly to heart attacks, kidney failure, falls and machine accidents — causes of death and injury that often aren’t officially recorded as heat-related. A 2021 analysis from the German nonprofit IZA Institute of Labor Economics found that higher temperatures are correlated with about 20,000 workplace injuries in California each year.

“Workers are not disposable, so they need urgent protections … in particular in areas such as Miami-Dade where 1 in 4 workers work outdoors,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council of Occupational Safety and Health, a worker advocacy group affiliated with WeCount. Data from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that 26 percent of the county’s workforce, or more than 300,000 people, work outdoors.

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But heat’s impact isn’t limited to the steamy subtropics of South Florida. “The reality is, every county in America needs to worry about it at least part of the year,” said Douglas Casa, head of the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute, which publishes research on heat illness among workers and athletes.

Local regulations fill the federal void

Worker advocates say the best solution would be for OSHA to set one federal standard to create basic heat regulations for all U.S. workplaces.

President Biden directed the federal agency to do just that in 2021. But the rulemaking process will drag on for years — and may collapse if Biden loses his reelection bid next year.

“As a policy, Republican administrations in recent decades have not issued any health standards,” said Michaels. “So we can expect that if the next administration is led by a Republican president, we will not see a heat standard for the entire period of that administration.”

“As part of the standards development process, the agency held Small Business Advocacy Review Panel meetings in September to gather views on the potential effects of a heat standard on small businesses,” an OSHA spokesperson wrote in an email. “OSHA is currently reviewing comments received during the panel meetings.”

In the absence of federal rules, several states have passed their own. California, Washington and Oregon have standards that cover all outdoor workers. Colorado has rules that apply only to farmworkers. Minnesota created a heat standard for indoor workers in factories and warehouses.

But most worker heat deaths happen outside those states, according to OSHA data. They’re concentrated in the South, where Republican state legislatures have rejected heat regulations. Florida lawmakers have killed a bill that would create a state heat standard three years in a row.

“In a lot of states across the country, there is no political path to passing a statewide standard, so what we’re doing in Miami-Dade can be an example for cities across the country to take local action to protect their workers,” said Marleine Bastien, a Miami-Dade County commissioner and co-sponsor of the proposed heat ordinance.

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But state lawmakers can strike down local rules.

In May, Texas state legislators passed a preemption law that nullifies a broad swath of local ordinances, including heat laws passed by city governments in Austin and Dallas, which required construction companies to give workers 10-minute breaks every four hours under $500 penalties. A district court judge ruled the state preemption law unconstitutional, but it took effect anyway on Sept. 1 while the state appeals the decision.

That month, Florida state legislators passed a law that allows businesses to sue local governments over any ordinance they deem “arbitrary or unreasonable.” If a business sues, the local government must immediately stop enforcing the ordinance while the case plays out in court. The municipality must pay up to $50,000 in attorneys fees and repeal the law if it loses the lawsuit.

“If this is passed we’d consider every avenue possible to find a solution against this ordinance that would still protect workers and businesses,” said Cabrera de Oña, who is also general counsel at Costa Farms.

The debate in Miami-Dade mirrors industry pushback against heat standards across the United States. “It is a microcosm of what we expect nationally,” said Martinez. “Industry is always lobbying for less red tape around issues of worker safety. … That’s the reality of why a heat standard has taken so long to move forward.”

Commissioners in Miami-Dade already deferred the final vote on the heat ordinance once in October to buy time for last-minute negotiations and to shore up support for the bill. But Kionne McGhee, a Miami-Dade County commissioner and co-sponsor of the heat ordinance, vowed to bring the measure up for a vote on Nov. 7 no matter what.

“There is no intent to defer this item any longer,” McGhee said. “If it means we have to sit in that chamber for 10 to 15 hours in a marathon, we’re going to go in there and get this right.”

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