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As Record-Breaking Temperatures Hit Texas, Abbott Signs Bill Forcing Localities To Undo Heat Standards Protecting Construction and Outdoor Workers

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The Law, Dubbed The “Death Star Bill” By Critics, “Will Nullify Ordinances Enacted By Austin In 2010 And Dallas In 2015 That Established 10-Minute Breaks Every Four Hours So That Construction Workers Can Drink Water And Protect Themselves From The Sun,” The Texas Tribune Reported.

Workers in industries like construction are particularly affected by extreme heat and other weather conditions. Over the past decade, nearly 400 U.S. workers have died from heat exposure, data shows. The deadliest state in the nation has been Texas, where more than 50 workers have died since 2010. Advocates say the numbers could be even higher, “because heat-related deaths are often recorded under a different primary cause of injury,” The Texas Tribune reports.

That’s why heat standards ensuring workers – many of them immigrants and people of color – guaranteed water, shade, and rest breaks are so important. These policies save lives.

But even as Texas is home to this gruesome tally and is presently “sweltering under record-breaking temperatures” that are expected to continue on for at least another week, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law a bill that will soon override local ordinances protecting the lives of workers who work outdoors. In fact, the bill is already being dubbed the “Death Star Bill.”

“The law’s scope is broad but ordinances that establish minimum breaks in the workplace are one of the explicit targets,” The Texas Tribune said. “The law will nullify ordinances enacted by Austin in 2010 and Dallas in 2015 that established 10-minute breaks every four hours so that construction workers can drink water and protect themselves from the sun. It also prevents other cities from passing such rules in the future. San Antonio has been considering a similar ordinance.”

Despite legislative efforts by Democratic members of Congress, there is no federal heat standard in place. This means it’s been up to localities to pass their own protections, though only a handful of states have implemented some form of relief. “California’s Heat Illness Prevention Standard requires employers to provide training, water, shade, and planning,” Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said. “A temperature of 80°F triggers the requirements.” 

In Texas, the termination of local policies mandating heat-related breaks will overwhelmingly hurt Latino workers “because they represent six out of every 10 construction workers, according to U.S. Census Bureau data,” The Texas Tribune continued. Black workers are also affected, Houston Public Media reported in 2021. Before Dallas’ ordinance, 66% of construction workers didn’t get water breaks, Texas Public Radio reports. Meanwhile, more than 200,000 people work as agricultural workers in the state, a number that more than doubles when including family members, Austin American-Statesman reported in 2016. Experts and advocates alike fear Texas’ already-devastating death toll will only rise as our nation continues to see escalating temperatures due to the climate crisis. 

“Construction is a deadly industry,” Ana Gonzalez, Deputy Director of Policy & Politics at the Texas AFL-CIO, told The Texas Tribune. “Whatever the minimum protection is, it can save a life. We are talking about a human right. We will see more deaths, especially in Texas’ high temperatures.” David Michaels, former OSHA head, agreed. “Prohibiting these local laws will result in workers being severely hurt or killed,” he told the outlet.

“It’s unconscionable that Texas would strip labor protections from workers as they face record-setting temperatures,” tweeted Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ). “Workers deserve protection from extreme heat which is now more common due to climate change.”

Lawmakers have in the past introduced the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, which would require OSHA to implement a national heat stress standard, United Farm Workers said. The bill was named after a 53-year-old farmworker who in 2004 collapsed and died from heatstroke after picking grapes for ten hours in the 100-degree sun. In Texas, Karl Simmons, an African-American construction worker, died from heatstroke on just his second day of work in 2018, Houston Public Media reported in 2021. “It feel good for now, but I know the heat coming,” he said to his wife early that day.

“While the Biden administration has made important strides to strengthen OSHA safety standards, we need laws on the books to protect indoor and outdoor workers from extreme heat,” Rep. Grijalva continued in this thread. He said he’s working to reintroduce the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act.

Like in Florida, immigrant workers have also been critical to hurricane recovery efforts in Texas. “About three-fourths of the day laborers who worked on post-Harvey recovery efforts in Houston were immigrants, according to a November study commissioned by labor groups,” The Dallas Morning News reported in 2019. Texas was in the midst of passing and implementing its anti-immigrant S.B. 4 legislation when Harvey hit Houston and other parts of coastal Texas in early September 2019. 

There were fears that the discriminatory law would hamper recovery efforts. While rebuilding began the following month, it was slowed due to the existing worker shortage, USA Today reported at the time.

Flash forward several years later, and Texas is still hurting itself by hurting the workers who are critical to its future. “The bill is undemocratic,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in remarks reported by Newsweek. “It is probably the most undemocratic thing the legislature has done, and that list is getting very long. Local voters have created city charters, and I can’t imagine that they will be pleased to have their decisions usurped by lawmakers.”