As heat wave hits Texas, new law dissolves water breaks, labor rules

A law in Texas will soon override labor ordinances statewide that guarantee, among other things, construction workers are given 10-minute breaks to drink water and rest in the shade.

The law, signed Tuesday by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), will overturn many local laws regulating businesses across Texas, ensuring cities and counties instead follow state codes. Proponents say the law makes it easier for companies to sidestep a patchwork of local regulations to get work done. But opponents warn it overturns worker protections in more liberal municipalities that aren’t able to pass in the state legislature, where the GOP has majorities.

“If you just address worker safety and do it in a consistent manner, then that should be good for business,” state Rep. Maria Luisa Flores (D-Austin) told The Washington Post. “You don’t want your employees dying from heat illness because that impacts your business. I think employers should be some of the folks that are for worker protections.”

Flores and a colleague introduced two bills this year that would have established a statewide advisory board to set heat illness guidelines for Texas businesses and required mandatory breaks for contractors working for government entities, according to the Texas Tribune. Both bills failed.

The state law overriding local ordinances, House Bill 2127, won’t go into effect until Sept. 1, but it comes amid growing concerns about heat waves in Texas, including one that residents are experiencing now. Heat indexes recently topped 120 degrees in the southern part of Texas, with the state breaking heat records on Thursday and Friday, amplifying concerns about worker safety.

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Since 2010, at least 53 Texas workers have died of heat-related illness, according to NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations. Climate change has made the Texas heat worse. A report from the state’s climatologist estimates that the number of 100-degree days is expected to nearly double by 2036 compared to 2001-2020.

Texas is in the thick of a brutal and prolonged heat wave

There is no national heat protection standard for outdoor workers, so the Occupational Safety and Health Administration relies on states and cities to establish their own mandates.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) and Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) spearheaded the creation of House Bill 2127, which they say will help small businesses.

“For too long, progressive municipal officials and agencies have made Texas small businesses jump through contradictory and confusing hoops when it comes to the current hodgepodge of onerous and burdensome regulations,” Burrows said in a statement this year.

Creighton and Burrows did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether they will support statewide heat protections in future legislation. Abbott’s office also did not respond to a request for comment.

When Flores’s bill for statewide worker protections failed to make it out of committee, she attempted to amend House Bill 2127 to eliminate its reference to the labor code, hoping to preserve some worker protection ordinances. The amendments didn’t pass but her goal was mainly to spotlight concerns raised by Austin residents and labor advocates who fought for water break requirements in her district.

In Austin and Dallas, areas where water breaks have been mandated since 2010 and 2015, construction is booming. According to the Dallas Morning News, Texas gained 33,600 construction jobs last year.

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Advocates for worker protections point to especially vulnerable populations that call Texas home, including low-income and Latino immigrants who are less likely to communicate their discomfort or illness on the job.

In addition to the water breaks, advocates call for rules that would guarantee access to fan-cooled or air-conditioned spaces, and access to sunscreen and sweat-wicking apparel.

As temperatures rise, industries fight heat safeguards for workers

Workers Defense Project, a Texas-based labor advocacy group, contributed to the development of the local water break ordinances. Last year, the group publicly appealed to OSHA to make a federal heat standard because Texas workers had been neglected by “anti-worker” state officials.

The concerns have gone beyond Texas. This year, attorneys general in New York, California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania penned a letter to Douglas Parker, the Biden administration’s assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, petitioning for the implementation of an emergency temporary heat standard to protect outdoor and indoor workers.

No temporary standard came after the letter, but OSHA under the Biden administration has been directed to issue rules that protect workers from heat. However, it can take an average of seven years to write new safety standards.

Since 2000, only three states have successfully implemented permanent statewide heat protection standards: California, Minnesota and Oregon. Similar bills in states such as New York, Arizona, Nevada and at the national level have failed in recent years, getting stuck in committee and never voted on.

Since the Texas legislature only meets every two years, Flores says she hopes she gets another opportunity to introduce a heat protection bill next session.

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“Texas has always had a really hard uphill battle on workers’ rights and, you know, unfortunately, the current climate is almost certainly going to exacerbate that,” she said.


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