Austin, Texas, construction workers tirelessly dig on a scorching hot day in August 2021. However, their right to regular rest breaks has been jeopardized by a bill signed by Gov. Greg Abbott last month. This bill overturns local ordinances in certain Texas cities that mandate rest breaks for construction workers. Coincidentally, just a week after this news, Austin experienced a record-high heat index of 118 degrees, with temperatures reaching 105 degrees or higher for 11 consecutive days. These extreme temperatures have resulted in a surge of heat-related incidents, with Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service responding to 410 cases since June 1.
One incident involved a middle-aged man who called for help after experiencing signs of heat exhaustion while working outdoors. Unfortunately, his condition quickly escalated to heat stroke, rendering him unconscious with a core temperature exceeding 106 degrees by the time paramedics arrived. This case highlights the serious risks that construction worker Mario Ontiveros and others face daily. While Ontiveros currently enjoys the protection of a local ordinance in Dallas that grants him a 10-minute rest break every four hours, this will no longer be the case after this summer.
On June 13, Gov. Greg Abbott signed HB 2127, known as the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act, which prevents cities and counties from imposing regulations stricter than state laws. This means that rest-break ordinances in Austin and Dallas, along with other local regulations, will be overturned when the law takes effect on Sept. 1. For Ontiveros, this decision holds significant consequences. In the past, he suffered from heat-related illness after working for over 10 hours in scorching heat without adequate breaks. This incident led to tendonitis and a week of hospitalization, leaving Ontiveros with medical bills and financial hardship.
Advocates argue that this new law poses serious health risks for construction workers in rapidly growing cities like Austin and Dallas. Before the adoption of Dallas’ rest-break ordinance, surveys revealed that 33% of construction workers did not receive rest breaks, and 66% lacked access to drinking water. Additionally, between 2010 and 2020, at least 53 Texas workers died from heat-related illnesses. Research conducted in 2018 showed that Austin’s rest-break ordinance increased the likelihood of construction workers getting breaks by 35%. The repeal of these ordinances, such as HB 2127, endangers workers’ lives and removes vital safety measures.
Dr. Ronda McCarthy, an occupational health specialist and medical director at Concentra in Waco, emphasized that heat illnesses and deaths are preventable. Factors such as protective clothing, exposure to direct heat, and access to shade play a critical role in worker safety. McCarthy also noted that without rest-break regulations, workers may fear job loss if they voice their need for breaks. Currently, only five states have worker heat protections, and no federal occupational heat rule exists (although one is being developed).
HB 2127, which has earned the nickname “Death Star Bill” due to its ability to override local control, will also eliminate construction-worker protections in southeast Texas. This poses concerns for Paul Puente, executive secretary of the Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council, who believe that these regulations are essential for ensuring a safe working environment. The absence of rest breaks in extreme heat can lead to fatigue, disorientation, and dehydration, putting workers’ lives at risk.
Texas has gained a reputation as an “unsafe state” for workers due to the rollback of enforcement and regulations. Local ordinances, such as Dallas’ rest-break policy, were implemented after the tragic death of a construction worker who succumbed to heat stroke. More recently, an investigation revealed that a construction worker died from heat stroke while working on Tesla’s Gigafactory outside of Austin. As climate change worsens, the risks associated with extreme heat for construction workers will only increase. The number of 100-degree days per year has doubled in Texas over the past few decades, and the hot season is extending from May through September.
Despite the alarming consequences of the rollback of rest-break regulations, Gov. Abbott, Rep. Dustin Burrows, and Sen. Brandon Creighton have refused to comment on their decision. Construction workers like Ontiveros simply want to go to work without fearing for their lives and well-being. As the debate continues, it is crucial to prioritize worker safety and ensure that robust regulations are in place to protect those who labor tirelessly under extreme conditions.
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Rohit Malhotra is a medical expert and health journalist who offers evidence-based advice on fitness, nutrition, and mental well-being. His articles aim to help readers lead healthier lives.