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“No Worker Deserves To Die On The Job”: Calls For Federal Heat Protections Intensify Following Tragic Death Of Florida Farmworker

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Farmworkers and advocates in Florida are mourning the loss of Efrain López García, a Homestead farmworker who died while laboring in extreme heat earlier this month. López García was harvesting a tropical fruit called longan when he told his coworkers that he wasn’t feeling well. “The workers weren’t sure what to do,” Miami Herald reports. “Their bosses, they said, had never trained them on how to recognize the signs of heat stroke or administer first aid in an emergency.”

Colleagues got López García under some shade and gave him water to rehydrate. NBC News reports he was also given some ice to cool down. The reports differ on whether he felt well enough to get back to work or was disoriented and wandered off, but what is known is that he was soon found unresponsive. “I was in Jacksonville when the person who was working with him called me and told me [Efraín] was ill and had apparently died after the heat,” his brother, Jeremías López García, said at a vigil organized by The Farmworker Association of Florida. “He was very friendly. Fun, a good person. When I was with him, we were happy.”

López García’s tragic death “has become the latest rallying cry for workers pushing Miami-Dade County to pass a law that would require minimum workplace protections for people working outside on the hottest days of the summer,” Miami Herald said. López García’s death occurred during a streak of scorching heat that has now lasted more than a month. However, no heat protections for outdoor workers are currently in place in the region.

“Is that what we deserve? No. We’re human beings. We deserve a dignified life and a decent job,” Alejandro Pérez, a member of Florida-based WeCount, said in the report. “Today we want to tell the commissioners to pass this law so that we can stop our people from dying.” In California, protections include water, rest, shade, and heat illness prevention training. Farmworker Association of Florida spokesperson Yvette Cruz told Miami Herald that water, rest, and shade, along with working with somebody, make up the four basics of outdoor worker protections. 

The movement for extreme heat protection is also getting a push from more than 110 federal lawmakers, who are urging the Biden administration “to create new federal rules to protect workers from heat-related injuries on the job,” The Daily Beast reported. Lead supporters include Rep. Greg Casar, Rep. Judy Chu, Rep. Sylvia Garcia, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Rep. Bobby Scott, Sen. Sherrod Brown, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Sen. Alex Padilla, and Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Biden administration in 2021 announced “a coordinated, interagency effort to respond to extreme heat” threatening workers and communities, but the rulemaking process is slow, and the need to protect the people who feed America is urgent. This is the hottest summer on record, but farmworkers, construction workers, and others have no choice but to work outside.

“This very common sense proposal to make sure that workers have the water breaks they need—this is the kind of thing that it shouldn’t be a left-or-right issue,” Casar told The Daily Beast. Yet certain lawmakers have sought to make it an issue despite eating thanks to these workers. Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last month signed a law that will nullify local ordinances establishing water breaks and other relief for outdoor workers. Texas has been the deadliest state for outdoor workers. More than 50 people there have died since 2010. López García, just 29, was “the second farmworker known to die in a South Florida field this year,” Miami Herald said.

In January, a Parkland farmworker died on his first day at work at a bell pepper farm, the Department of Labor said. “Struggling to keep pace with more experienced farmworkers, he complained of fatigue and leg pain as the area’s heat index neared 90 degrees,” a statement said. “Sometime later, co-workers found him unresponsive in a shallow drainage ditch. Like several co-workers, he experienced symptoms related to heat illness.”

The subsequent investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determined his death was entirely preventable, and that the contractor failed to follow “established safety practices regarding heat-related hazards,” the department said. “Had Rafael Barajas made sure workers were given time to get used to working in high temperatures and provided them with water, shade and rest the worker might not have lost his life,” OSHA Area Office Director Condell Eastmond said. The contractor was cited, the department said.

Miami Herald reported that a bill introduced by Miami-Dade County commissioners Kione McGhee and Marleine Bastien would “protect outdoor workers on hot days. It would require companies to train workers on heat safety and guarantee them access to water and regular breaks in the shade throughout the day.” But even if they succeed in passing the legislation, federal lawmakers still bear a responsibility. Roughly half of farmworkers lack legal immigration status, leaving them particularly vulnerable to retaliation if they report a workplace violation. Most farmworkers in Florida are undocumented, WLRN said.

“In South Florida, workers are scared to speak up when they’re under attack from anti-immigrant laws,” Florida Immigrant Coalition’s Sonia Moreno told Miami Herald. “As a result, the most vulnerable communities are scared to even ask for a break to go to the bathroom or drink water because they’re afraid of being marginalized because of their immigration status.” But as we continue to push federal lawmakers to pass legalization like the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, there are steps that can be taken now to prevent further senseless deaths.

“No worker deserves to die on the job,” tweeted the Texas AFL-CIO in response to the letter from Casar and other lawmakers. “It is beyond time for federal heat protections.”