If you’re a landscape, maintenance or irrigation contractor in Florida, you should know that there is a bill being proposed in your state legislature that could require you to train all your outdoor workers and managers on how to avoid heat-related illnesses, according to a story reported by Bianca Padró Ocasio in the Orlando Sentinel.
The Heat Illness Prevention Bill, sponsored by Orlando Democrat Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, would apply to all agriculture and construction-related businesses, which includes landscape and irrigation contractors. It would set a statewide standard that all outdoor workers be given plenty of drinking water, access to shade and 10-minute rest breaks enforced after every two hours of outside labor, the story reports.
“We often call the farmworkers the ‘invisible ones’ because what they do is unseen, is unheard,” Smith told Ocasio. “They do such important work and they’re often forgotten and we want to make sure that we’re protecting [them].”
A tragedy was part of the impetus for Smith’s bill. Last August, a Florida landscape company employee doing yard work at a home in Nokomis passed out and later died of heat exhaustion following a six-hour lawn-edging session, according to OSHA. Investigators found that the heat index that day reached between 97 and 105 degrees.
Last month, OSHA announced that the man’s employer, Olin Landscaping, will be facing up to $16,102 in fines for multiple workplace violations, including “exposing employees to outdoor heat hazards” and “failing to report the workplace fatality to OSHA within eight hours, as required.” The company can contest OSHA’s findings or request an informal conference with the agency.
The bill, and its companion bill in the Florida Senate, would also require annual training for personnel so they can learn to spot signs of heat exhaustion and allow for “acclimatization,” or a two-week period for gradual adaptation to a hot environment.
However, according to the article, this legislation could face a difficult path. It has no cosponsors in the Florida House of Representatives and has yet to be assigned to any legislative committees.
The U.S. Labor Department’s Office for Safety and Health Administration recommends that employers provide enough water, rest and shade for workers in hot environments. OSHA says precautions should be taken when the heat index, a measurement that takes both humidity and temperature into account, reaches 91 degrees or more.
But aside from avoiding general hazards, the federal agency does not have a standard for safety practices in indoor or outdoor heat exposure. A few states, including California and Minnesota, require workers and employers be trained in avoiding heat-related illness.
Smith’s bill was also prompted by several recent studies on the dangers of heat exposure mixed with strenuous labor, especially as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change. Researchers at Emory University recently monitored workers in five Florida farming communities — including Apopka and Pierson — from 2015 to 2017 for The Girasoles Study on the effects of heat stress. In Apopka, the study showed nearly that half of all the participants began the day dehydrated and almost all experienced dangerously high body temperatures by the end of the workday.
Particularly with regard to construction and farm workers, advocates argue that undocumented immigrants are less likely to take breaks or report an injury for fear of losing their jobs or being turned over to federal immigration authorities.
“Florida’s one of the hottest states in the entire country, and … you have humidity added that makes the heat even more debilitating,” Jeannie Economos, a safety and health coordinator with the Farmworker Association of Florida in Apopka told Ocasio. “We think it’s about time that Florida steps up.”
But Ben Belusky, chief executive officer at the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, argued that most employers already comply with training and follow federal heat-related guidelines.
“Much of the provisions of the bill are largely duplicative,” Belusky told Ocasio. He added that employers want to avoid injuries and illnesses because it affects productivity and increases worker’s compensation rates.
“No one wants to have their workers become ill or injured on the job,” he told the reporter.
Smith and Economos agreed that most Florida employers strive to help keep their workers safe.
“Many employers are already doing this,” Smith admitted in the story. “So many employers in the agriculture industry want to care for workers like they are their own family … but there are always the bad actors and it’s important for government to mandate some of these safety standards.”