Labor Department cities Florida company over worker’s heat death amid state’s ban on heat illness prevention

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Labor Department cities Florida company over worker’s heat death amid state’s ban on heat illness prevention

April 15 (UPI) — The Department of Labor on Monday said it cited a Florida company for its lack of preparedness to prevent heat-related illness after a heatstroke killed a 26-year-old worker from Mexico in September 2023.

McNeill Labor Management Inc. — a company that provides contract laborers for agricultural markets throughout the United States — was cited in the investigation by the federal Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which found that the unidentified Mexican national had died from heat-related injuries while working in an open sugar cane field.

An OSHA investigation found that he had experienced symptoms consistent with a heat-related illness and soon after collapsed.

The heat index reportedly had reached 97 degrees Fahrenheit in Palm Beach County, where the man, who was legally visiting the United States on the federal H-2A program for temporary or seasonal non-immigrant workers under a Biden administration pledge to “expand lawful pathways as an alternative to irregular migration,” had later died.

The Labor Department says the migrant worker’s death could have been avoided had the Belle Glade, Fla.-based McNeill labor management company taken the effort to implement heat-related safety rules to protect workers.

An OSHA official said had McNeill — which faces a possible $27,655 penalty and is contesting the investigation — “made sure its workers were given time to acclimate to working in brutally high temperatures with required rest breaks, the worker might not have suffered a fatal injury.”

The sugar cane farm field was roughly an hour west of West Palm Beach, 20 minutes from the closest road and 22 miles from the hospital to which the worker was transported and later died, according to a release by the Labor Department.

“This young man’s life ended on his first day on the job because his employer did not fulfill its duty to protect employees from heat exposure, a known and increasingly dangerous hazard,” OSHA’s Fort Lauderdale-based Area Director Condell Eastmond, said.

As average temperatures rise across the globe, the Labor Department said heat illness is a growing safety and health concern for workers both indoor and outdoor. A European Union-backed report said 2023 was the hottest year on record mind ongoing symptoms related to climate change.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that environmental heat exposure had claimed the lives of 56 workers in 2020 and 36 in 2021 a year later. From 2010 to 2020, Florida recorded 215 deaths directly related to heat, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Monday’s OSHA announcement came days after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that prevents local governments from enacting their own policies to protect outdoor workers in all 67 Florida counties.

The state House Bill 433 signed by DeSantis — which passed Florida’s Senate in March 2024 and goes into effect July 1 — restricts local government power by ensuring they are unable to force companies to “meet or provide heat exposure requirements beyond those required by law.”

A recent years-long effort by Miami-Dade County would have required a 10-minute break for workers in a shaded space every two hours for outdoor workers. The bill signed by the former Republican presidential candidate would make such a requirement void.

At a press conference, DeSantis pointed to the Miami-Dade effort specifically, saying “there was a lot of concern” about it from some lawmakers.

“And I don’t think it was an issue in any other part of the state,” the governor had said. “I think they were pursuing something that was gonna cause a lot of problems down there, so I think a lot of the members of the Dade delegation created that just to steer clear of those problems.”

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