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Amid a record heat wave, Texas construction workers lose their right to rest breaks

Austin, Texas, construction workers dig on a hot day in August 2021. Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that overturns local ordinances in some Texas cities that mandate regular rest breaks for such workers.
Blaine Young
Public Health Watch
Austin, Texas, construction workers dig on a hot day in August 2021. Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that overturns local ordinances in some Texas cities that mandate regular rest breaks for such workers.

A week after construction workers in Austin, Texas, learned they were about to lose their right to rest breaks, the city reached a record-high heat index of 118 degrees. From July 9 to 19, the state capital saw an unprecedented, 11-day streak of temperatures reaching 105 degrees or more.

The Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service has responded to 410 heat-related incidents just since June 1, according to a spokesperson, Capt. Christa Stedman. Among them: A middle-aged man, working outdoors, who called for help after experiencing signs of heat exhaustion.

"It progressed so quickly into heat stroke that, between the time he called 911 and the time that the paramedics arrived on scene, he was fully unconscious and his core temperature was over 106," Stedman said.

Construction worker Mario Ontiveros risks the same outcome. Because he works in Dallas, a local ordinance gives him the right to at least a 10-minute rest break every four hours. But this is the last summer he'll get to claim it.

On June 13, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed HB 2127 — the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act — which bars cities and counties from passing regulations that are stricter than state ones. It also overturns local rules such as ordinances in Austin and Dallas that mandate rest breaks for construction workers. The law takes effect Sept. 1.

Suffering from heat with no way to take time off

Dallas implemented its rest-break ordinance in 2015. Three years before that Ontiveros lost feeling in his arm after painting high school stadium stairs for more than 10 hours in 112-degree heat, he told Public Health Watch through a translator.

"The other workers called paramedics and I was rushed to the hospital, where I spent seven days battling tendonitis," Ontiveros, 61, said. "Aside from the physical and emotional trauma of recovering from an illness exacerbated by extreme heat, I was out seven days of work, with no help from work to pay my medical bills."

While doctors recommended that he stay home to recover, Ontiveros said it wasn't financially possible. He spent several years in physical therapy but said he still has to be careful, especially in the heat. "It's changed my life," he said, "but I've had to learn to deal with it ..."

Giving workers a break

State Rep. Dustin Burrows, the Republican from Lubbock who authored HB 2127, said in a press release that the law is needed to end "the current hodgepodge of onerous and burdensome regulations." But for construction workers in two of the state's fastest-growing cities, advocates say, it poses serious health risks.

"We know that workers do pass out and experience heat stress and different types of heat illnesses," said Daniela Hernandez, state legislative coordinator for the Workers Defense Action Fund, a Texas-based advocacy group that pushed for the rest-break ordinances.

Surveys of Dallas construction workers before the city's ordinance was adopted found that 33% said they didn't receive rest breaks and 66% said they didn't receive water. At least 53 Texas workers died from heat-related illnesses between 2010 and 2020, according to a 2021 investigationby NPR, The Texas Newsroom, The California Newsroom, Public Health Watch and Columbia Journalism Investigations.

Research published in 2018 — eight years after Austin passed its rest-break ordinance — found that construction workers were 35% more likely to get a break because of the rule.

"[HB] 2127 is a huge overreach on part of the state and it takes away things like rest breaks that we know save lives," Hernandez said.

Preventable heat-related illness

Dr. Ronda McCarthy, an occupational health specialist and medical director at health care provider Concentra in Waco, said heat illnesses and deaths are preventable.

"There's much more than just the ambient temperature," she said. "You have to think of so many other factors like what these workers are wearing — their hardhats, protective clothing, respirators — or whether they're in direct heat or [if] they get shade."

McCarthy said without rest-break rules, many workers may be afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up about needing a respite from the heat.

Just five states — California, Colorado, Washington, Minnesota and Oregon — have worker heat protections on the books. There is no occupational heat rule at the federal level, though one is in the early stages of development.

"By the time you start experiencing the symptoms of heat stress, you're on the way to some very dangerous medical conditions," said Debbie Berkowitz, a worker safety and health policy expert at Georgetown University and former chief of staff at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

HB 2127 — which critics and supporters call the "Death Star Bill" for its power to obliterate local control — will also strike down construction-worker protections in southeast Texas, said Paul Puente, executive secretary of the Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council. Earlier this year, the Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously adopted a Contractor Safety Record Policy, which requires managers and workers on most county construction projects to get safety training.

While labor unions can still negotiate for rest breaks, Puente said HB 2127 will negatively impact construction safety as a whole.

"Science has already shown that individuals need to have time to take a break, collect their thoughts, and then return back to work to ensure a safe working environment," he said.

Without allotted rest breaks in extreme heat, he said, workers can easily become fatigued, disoriented, dehydrated — effects that endanger their lives.

An 'unsafe state' for workers?

This is the reality for Ontiveros and others in his field. Ontiveros said he once saw a co-worker lose consciousness and fall from a ladder. Having received safety training, Ontiveros was the only one on the job site who knew how to help — performing CPR and asking his co-worker basic questions to keep him conscious — until paramedics arrived, he said.

Texas is "an unsafe state [for workers] because enforcement has been dialed back, regulations have been dialed back," Puente said. "And when you're trying to encourage businesses to come to your state, this is not a good look."

Dallas' 2015 rest-break ordinance was adopted shortly after the death of Roendy Granillo, a local construction worker who succumbed to heat stroke and whose family said he was denied a requested break.

More recently, a Texas Observer investigation reported that in 2021, construction worker Antelmo Ramirez died from heat stroke while working on Tesla's Gigafactory just outside of Austin's city limits in Travis County. The temperature on the day Ramirez died was 96 degrees; his internal body temperature was more than 10 degrees higher.

The risks of extreme heat for construction workers are only going to increase. John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, said the number of 100-degree days per year has doubled over the past several decades and will continue to rise.

Texas' hot season is also getting longer, McCarthy said.

"I used to consider it May 15 through September 15," she said. "And now it's May 1 through September 30."

Public Health Watch reached out numerous times to Abbott, Burrows and state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe — who sponsored HB 2127 in the Texas Senate — but none would comment on the rollback of the rest-break ordinances.

"We are not robots," Ontiveros said. "We are humans, and we deserve to go to work without worrying if we're going to make it back home on hot summer nights."

This story was originally produced by Public Health Watch, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Texas. Hannah Levitan is a reporting intern with the Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hannah Levitan, Investigative Reporting Workshop