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Climate change will make heat even deadlier for outdoor workers, study says

Florida’s 2 million outdoor workers — more than 20 percent of its workforce — will be at greater risk of losing their lives and $8.4 billion in total annual earnings.
Carpenter Steven Miller, of Brooksville, takes a moment to clear the sweat from his face while framing interior walls at the Sutherland Trails development Thursday in Palm Harbor.
Carpenter Steven Miller, of Brooksville, takes a moment to clear the sweat from his face while framing interior walls at the Sutherland Trails development Thursday in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 17
Updated Aug. 19

Climate change is expected to quadruple outdoor workers’ exposure to dangerous heat across the county from now through 2065, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

That could jeopardize the health of millions of workers and put more than $55 billion of their earnings at risk annually if global warming emissions continue without additional protections, scientists say in the new report released Tuesday.

The last seven years have been the hottest yet. And climate change — resulting in increased heat and rising sea levels — is getting worse. Over the next few decades, the roughly 32 million outdoor workers in the U.S. may have to choose between their jobs and their health.

“Climate change is a problem here and now,” said report author Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This is not something that we can wait to deal with until our children are grown or their children are grown.”

Richard Bermudes toughs through the heat while using a sledge hammer to construct a drainage culvert Thursday in Palm Harbor.
Richard Bermudes toughs through the heat while using a sledge hammer to construct a drainage culvert Thursday in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In an average year, heat kills more people nationwide than other weather disasters such as flooding or hurricanes, said Dahl. Outdoor workers are on the frontlines of those dangers, and are up to 35 times more likely to die from heat-related causes than the general public.

Currently, there are about five days a year that are too hot to work outdoors, according to calculations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From now through midcentury, the study says, that could rise to 33.

Florida’s approximately 2 million outdoor workers — more than 20 percent of the state’s workforce — will face the consequences of increased temperatures, according to the study. It projects extreme heat will put nearly $8.4 billion of the state’s outdoor workers’ total annual earnings at risk. Each worker risks losing an average of about $3,700 a year. In the Tampa Bay region, Pasco County workers would lose the most per person. South Florida workers in counties like Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, would lose the most total income.

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Florida is especially vulnerable because its high humidity sends feels-like temperatures soaring, said Clyde Fraisse, a professor of agrometeorology at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. When the heat index rises, it becomes more difficult for workers to cool down.

“We need to start looking at forecasting, for instance — heat-related or heat indices especially — when you’re going to schedule outside work,” Fraisse said.

He worked on a recent study that examined heat-related deaths in Florida from 2010-20. At least 215 people died, and 36 were working outdoors at the time.

Zacdiel Aquilar hydrates during a break from building a drainage culvert Thursday in Palm Harbor.
Zacdiel Aquilar hydrates during a break from building a drainage culvert Thursday in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

They harvest or plant fruit in fields, he said, especially in eastern Hillsborough and Manatee counties. Much of that work is done by hand, not machine, for crops like strawberries. While the Pacific Northwest swelters under heat waves this summer, workers there have started to harvest cherries and blueberries earlier, Fraisse said, starting as early as 4 a.m. to work during cooler hours.

When more frequent heat waves hit, he said companies and farmers should explore new ways to keep workers safe. Businesses can place shade above employees and make sure to encourage hydration. Perhaps future planting seasons and harvest picking hours could be shifted to avoid peak heat.

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Federal guidelines for outdoor working conditions are only recommendations, however, so workers remain largely unprotected on extremely hot days. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests employers enforce safety precautions when the heat index tops 90 degrees. California and Washington are the only states that have permanent safety standards in place.

The burden of extreme heat disproportionately falls on workers of color. More than 40 percent of outdoor workers nationwide identify as African American, Black, Hispanic or Latino, according to the study. That group alone risks losing an estimated $23.5 billion in annual earnings by midcentury with no reduction in global warming emissions. Migrant and undocumented workers may also face greater barriers to safety protections due to the possibility of deportation, which may stop them from speaking out against companies or seeking medical help.

‘’The burden of temperatures rising due to global warming takes a higher toll in Latinx communities,” said María Revelles, director of Chispa Florida, an environmental justice advocacy group.

Carpenters Steven Miller, left, and Sean Bartlett, both of Brooksville, frame interior walls at the Sutherland Trails development Thursday in Palm Harbor.
Carpenters Steven Miller, left, and Sean Bartlett, both of Brooksville, frame interior walls at the Sutherland Trails development Thursday in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can lead to kidney disease, skin cancer, and other illnesses. Meanwhile, most farmworkers do not have access to healthcare. For Latinx communities, the urgency to stop global warming is a matter of life and death.”

In addition to limiting workloads and adjusting hours, reducing global warming emissions would give outdoor workers another needed layer of protection by reducing the number of days they must work under extreme heat, according to the report authors.

The report urges local and national elected officials to invest in and implement solutions to curb rising temperatures, and calls on Congress to adopt the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021.

The bill is named after a California farmworker who died in 2014 from heat stroke after picking grapes for 10 hours in triple-digit temperatures. Instead of getting medical help for the 53-year-old, his employer told his son to drive him home. The bill calls on the federal government to mandate that businesses provide adequate hydration, shade and breaks to employees.

Related: Sunny day flooding could get a lot worse in St. Petersburg, study shows

The study also recommends implementing heat safety monitoring and reporting requirements and offering multilingual training about the dangers of extreme heat.

“The people who work outdoors are often doing work that are very critical to the functioning of our society but it’s also invisible to us,” Dahl said. “Consider the role of outdoor workers in your own life.”

Times staff writer Zack Sampson contributed to this report. The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing. This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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