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As Heat Scorches Texas, Lawmakers Loosen Worker Protections

The move has dangerous implications for Black and brown people, who are disproportionately in industries where workers spend long hours outdoors.

A construction worker wipes sweat from his face on a hot day in Houston. A law that goes into effect in September eliminate city and county rules mandating water breaks for construction workers. (Eric Kayne/Getty Images)

Eugene Gates worked for the U.S. Postal Service for nearly 40 years before dying on his route in Dallas. On that day in mid-June, the heat index hit 115 degrees, the highest since 1980.

The exact cause of death has yet to be confirmed, but his wife and others attribute it to the brutal heat wave ravaging the state. As Texas temperatures hit triple digits and the heat index rises to dangerous levels, new legislation signed by the governor makes residents increasingly vulnerable to injury, illness and death, experts and advocates say.

Gov. Greg Abbott approved a law that will eliminate city and county rules mandating water breaks for construction workers after the state legislature passed House Bill 2127 during session. It nullifies ordinances that establish 10-minute breaks every four hours for construction workers and prevents cities from enacting similar rules. Dallas and Austin have such ordinances in place, and San Antonio was considering its own. 

And while it may not directly impact mail workers, it could have broad public health implications.

Black and brown people are disproportionately represented within industries where workers spend long hours outdoors, said Benika Dixon, an assistant professor in Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health who studies the health impacts of environmental hazards. “These tend to be the same populations where we see increased rates of chronic disease, which are oftentimes made worse by extreme temperatures.”

In the U.S., heat is likely responsible for at least 170,000 work-related injuries and up to 2,000 deaths every year, according to a recent report by Public Citizen, a nonpartisan think tank. The worst consequences of heat stress strike Black Americans at a disproportionately high rate, making Black Texans particularly vulnerable. Across the country, Black folks are disproportionately likely to work jobs with the most heat-related deaths, and Black construction workers are 51% more likely to die than the general construction worker population, data shows. The risk for Latino workers is even higher. 

As heat waves get longer and hotter, and the season expands, the numbers are likely to continue spiking, experts say. Heat waves used to occur during three months of the year, said Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen. Now, she said, they extend about five months.

2024 is slated to be the hottest year in history, she said, adding, “It’s not just the long term that we’re concerned about. It’s what’s happening right now and what’s going to happen very soon.”

It’s due to climate change, scientists have warned. Heat is responsible for the most weather-related deaths in the U.S., and Texas ranks at the top of states with the largest number of workers who die from high temperatures. 

The number of ER visits and EMS calls statewide are up compared with this time last year, CDC data shows. And, inmates in Texas prisons are reporting difficulty breathing, seizures, nausea, and dehydration from facilities with partial or no air conditioning. Staff members are also suffering from heat-related illness. 

“This is a human rights violation,” said Dixon. 

The public health implications of a warmer climate are far-reaching. Studies show that, in addition to death and injury, extended exposure to heat can spark chronic illness, including kidney disease, especially with lack of hydration. It also exacerbates the severity of preexisting conditions. The most dangerous aspect of the recent heat waves is that temperatures aren’t dropping at night, said Fulcher, which means there’s little break from scorching heat. For people who do not have access to air conditioning, the result can be deadly. 

The risk may increase with elimination of mandated water breaks. “This is potentially shaving years off of people’s lives,” Fulcher said. Work-related illness could also spike. The earliest symptoms of heat-related illness include dizziness, loss of balance, and fatigue, which can cause accidents involving multiple workers. The statistics do not yet include those numbers. 

And, because outdoor heat also has a tremendous impact on indoor heat, experts worry about the domino effects on public health that a warmer climate will cause. Texas is becoming increasingly known for its rapidly growing warehouse development. The heat could put those workers at risk as well, Fulcher said.

Federal protections could prevent tens of thousands of heat-related injuries per year, one report shows

The Texas law, signed last month, will go into effect Sept. 1. Jessica Murfree, who studies climate, extreme weather and sports at Texas A&M, is concerned about the timing. The number of heat-related illnesses, especially among youth as they jump back into outdoor practices and team activities, tend to peak around late August and into September, she said. 

“That’s when so much is on the line,” Murfree said.