White House proposes worker heat protections, pushing back on Texas' ban on such rules

The rules come as worker advocates raise concerns that climate change makes job sites deadlier.

click to enlarge White House proposes worker heat protections, pushing back on Texas' ban on such rules
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The Biden White House on Tuesday proposed new rules requiring employers to shield workers from heat — a step toward overriding a law Gov. Greg Abbott signed last year banning Texas municipalities from passing their own workplace-safety rules.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposal would require employers to give water and rest breaks to both indoor and outdoor workers when temperatures reach certain thresholds. It would be the first federal mandate aimed at preventing heat-related workplace deaths.

Labor advocates argue those protections are increasingly necessary as climate change creates hotter conditions across the country. Last year was the hottest ever recorded in Texas, and at least 334 people here died from heat last year, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“Workers all over the country are passing out, suffering heat stroke and dying from heat exposure from just doing their jobs, and something must be done to protect them,” Douglas L. Parker, assistant secretary for occupational safety and health, said in a statement. “Today’s proposal is an important next step in the process to receive public input to craft a ‘win-win’ final rule that protects workers while being practical and workable for employers.”

Texas last fall adopted House Bill 2127, a GOP-backed measure many called the "Death Star bill," which barred cities and counties from creating their own worker protections, such as mandated water breaks. A Travis County judge last summer ruled the law unconstitutional, but Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the ruling and it remains in effect as court challenges play out.

Prior to the HB 2127, Austin and Dallas, required 10-minute water breaks every four hours. San Antonio had been weighing its own heat-protection ordinance before the state law blocked it from doing so. Even so City Council passed a water-break requirement for city contractors.

OSHA's rule-making process often takes seven years, but the Department of Labor and OSHA prioritized and expedited the new rules, according to U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, a Democrat whose district includes parts of both San Antonio and Austin. 

“For decades, workers have been organizing for federal protections from the extreme heat. Despite opposition from big corporations, these working families are finally winning the protections they deserve,” Casar said in a statement.

Casar staged a "thirst strike" protest with Texas workers on the steps of the U.S. Capitol last summer.

“Greg Abbott tried to take rest breaks away from everyday Texans, but now we’re one step closer to securing heatprotections for all Americans on the job," the congressman added. "Employers can adopt OSHA’s proposed rule and protect their workers today. For those workplaces who don’t, I will work with the Biden Administration to finalize this rule as soon as possible.”

Extreme heat results in more annual deaths than any other weather-related health risk, Environmental Protection Agency research shows. More than 14,000 Americans have died directly from heat-related causes since 1979, according to death certificates.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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