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Rising temperatures pose greater risk for outdoor workers, vulnerable populations

(Bonny Matejowsky/WUFT News)
Noah Long, the farm manager of the University of Florida Field & Fork Farm and Gardens Program, squints in the sunlight. “You won’t be efficient when it’s too hot," Long says. "Your brain isn’t working.” (Bonny Matejowsky/WUFT News)

The sun beat down with unrelenting rays of warm light. Save for a few welcome gusts of wind, humidity hung heavy in the afternoon air at the Field & Fork Farm one day earlier this month.

It was the kind of afternoon when five minutes outside felt like 15, and sweat stuck to your clothes like a second skin.

At 1 p.m. with the thermometer reading 90 degrees Fahrenheit, Noah Long walked past towering banana plants to rows of seemingly uncultivated land. He arrived at the “Irrigation Station” and turned the faucet. Bursts of water sprung through the sprinklers, providing much-needed hydration for the cover crops planted to protect the soil during the summer.

As farm manager of the University of Florida’s Field & Fork Farm and Gardens program, he’s subject to intense amounts of heat daily in the summer. But even for him, those afternoons can be too hot to handle.

“In Gainesville, there’s not a lot of wind, so the humidity just stagnates and it makes it feel hotter,” Long said. “You won’t be efficient when it’s too hot. Your brain isn’t working.”

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information’s Global Climate Report, this year will rank among the five warmest years in history and has a 61% chance of being the hottest in recorded history.

Though the scorching rays of sunlight aren’t anything unusual to the Sunshine State, certain populations, such as outdoor workers and lower-income communities, bear the brunt of increasingly hotter summers.

In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 433into law, preventing local governments from requiring heat protection for outdoor workers, such as water breaks, shade and other cooling measures.

With no previous state or federal protective heat standard in place, outdoor workers and community organizations across the country expressed concerns for workers’ health.

(Bonny Matejowsky/WUFT News)
Data from the past decade show temperatures fluctuating from one summer to the next but overall increasing in 2024 from where they were in 2014. (Bonny Matejowsky/WUFT News)

This summer has been particularly warm already. In May 2023, Gainesville’s temperature averaged 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Last month, it averaged 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Additionally, summertime rains have been sparse this year — May 2023 saw a total of 3.57 inches of rain while rainfall in May 2024 totalled 2.86 inches.

Long attributed the drier climate and hotter temperature he notices on the farm to climate change.

“This year has been brutal,” Long said. “If you see native plants wilting in Florida in the summer, that’s not good.”

According to Paul Monaghan, an associate professor at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences who studies the impacts of heat, farmworkers face different risks depending on the type of farm and location.

“In Florida, nearly everything we produce here depends on labor for production, especially for harvesting,” Monaghan said. “And with that comes a lot of risks.”

(Bonny Matejowsky/WUFT News)
An outdoor worker dries his face while cooling off in his golf cart at Field & Fork Farm. (Bonny Matejowsky/WUFT News)

Monaghan said growers he works with are concerned about HB433 and provide their workers with water, Gatorade and encouragement to prevent worker fallout from the heat. But with no governmental incentive or heat protective standard in the first place, the law’s impact on farms across Florida is hard to estimate.

“There’s just not this regulatory pressure for [farms] to change how they do work,” Monaghan said. “I don’t know how it makes anything different.”

In smaller farms with heat protection provisions, such as the Field & Fork Farm, the effects of heat can be minimized. But it’s a different story for other farmworkers, mostly immigrants from South and Central America with little to no formal education or English-speaking skills.

Dominique O’Connor is the climate justice organizer for the Farmworker Association of Florida, a nonprofit organization raising awareness and advocating for farmworkers’ rights. The Earth’s hotter temperatures and increasingly erratic weather patterns put extra pressure on farmers, she said.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, farmworkers in the U.S. are 20 times more likely to die from heat-related illness than private industry and non-federal government workers. Heat-related deaths are also undercounted in Florida and nationwide due to the difficulty of measuring heat’s effect on the body.

“When you experience heat, you might get dizzy and you can become injured,” O’Connor said. “Say you’re a construction worker or roofer. You could fall off of a roof, so those deaths are often not reported as heat-related deaths.”

Ernesto Ruiz is the research coordinator for the farmworker association. His research focuses on the sociological and cultural risk factors that put people at greater risk for heat stress and pesticide exposure.

The association participated in a study by Emory University monitoring farmworkers’ physiology while working outside. It found four out of five farmworkers had core body temperatures exceeding 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, the minimum fever temperature.

Improper workplace provisions exacerbate the effects of excessive heat.

“[Farmworkers] themselves tell us, ‘We forgo drinking water because if I drink water, then I’ll have to sometimes walk 15 minutes to reach our bathrooms,’” Ruiz said. “Which is illegal because the bathrooms have to be within a quarter of a mile at the longest.”

Farmworkers are also at an increased risk of acute kidney injury due to dehydration.

“Once you have one acute kidney injury, you’re at greater risk for developing subsequent acute kidney injuries and then you’re at really high risk for developing chronic kidney disease,” Ruiz said. “It’s not uncommon to see 40-year-olds on dialysis.”

On top of the health risks posed by high temperatures, farmworkers also deal with the effects of pesticide exposure, which can affect the nervous system, irritate the skin or eyes and in some cases lead to cancer.

In 2020 the Florida Legislature unanimously passed the Zachary Martin Act, mandating heat protection measures for student-athletes. Ruiz brought into question why outdoor workers can’t have the same required protections.

“It’s the exact same thing, heat risk and protective measures which are really simple,” Ruiz said. “Without a doubt [legislators] understand it, they just don’t care about mostly Hispanic and Haitian people.”

Bobby Mermer, the coordinator of Alachua County Labor Coalition, said there were efforts to campaign for a county ordinance requiring protections for workers, but they have yet to come to fruition.

Mermer said the best thing for outdoor workers to do is talk to one another about unionizing and standing up for their rights.

“It’s nice to have a law that protects you, but you don’t need a law to protect you,” Mermer said. “If you stand hand in hand, side by side with your co-workers and move as one, you can achieve anything.”

  1. (Bonny Matejowsky/WUFT News)
    Noah Long adjusts a sprinkler at the Field & Fork Farm. (Bonny Matejowsky/WUFT News)
Bonny is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.