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August 23, 2021

More workers are dying from heat. Texas may make it harder to protect them

In the summer of 2010, the Workers Defense Project, a Texas-based group that supports immigrant workers in the construction industry, organized a “thirst strike” in front of Austin’s city hall. More than a dozen workers and advocates sat in the June heat and went without water for six hours on a day that reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The strikers wanted the city council to require employers to provide drinking water and regular breaks to workers after a survey found that many construction workers were not receiving either, even though temperatures in Austin have reached as high as 112 degrees F. The campaign was a success — that year, the city council passed an ordinance mandating that construction workers get a 10-minute water break every four hours. In 2015, Dallas adopted a similar requirement. 

But now, E&E News reports that Republican lawmakers in Texas are pushing a bill that would eliminate these minimal protections that help workers survive on very hot days, which are increasing in number and severity with climate change. The bill, which was passed by the Texas Senate in May, strips municipalities of the ability to regulate employment benefits and policies, and was proposed in order to stop cities from issuing protections related to the COVID-19 pandemic, like mandatory sick leave. 

More than 30 million Americans earn their living doing physical labor outdoors, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists analysis of census data, and increasingly, they are working in extreme heat. From farmworkers and foresters to construction and maintenance workers, outdoor workers are up to 35 times more likely to die from exposure to extreme heat than the general population, according to past research. But while the risks of working in heat have been documented and studied by government agencies since at least the 1970s, the United States has yet to enact national labor standards to protect workers on very hot days. In the absence of national standards, only a few cities and two states — California and Washington — have issued their own protections.

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