Texas Water Break Ban Becomes Law
State's hostility for worker safety reaches a new level
Governor Greg Abbott signed a law that disallowed local governments from enacting safety regulations that are more strict than state standards, in essence banning them from requiring water breaks for workers in extreme heat work conditions.
The local governments in Austin and Dallas, Texas recently passed laws that require construction companies to provide water breaks to their workers throughout the day. We’re talking about Austin, Texas where they’ve already had 64 days in 2023 with temperatures over 100 degrees, smashing last year’s record of 53 such days (Austin’s streak of 41 days in a row with temps over 100 ended on September 8).
When doing physical labor outdoors in triple-digit heat, water breaks are a matter of survival.
But not to be outdone by the local lawmakers, the state of Texas, led by Governor Greg Abbott, has stepped in and passed a law that says no locally established rule shall prescribe a regulatory standard that is more strict than those imposed by the state. It became law on September 1. Texas has no water-break requirement for workers.
So, in Austin and Dallas, where citizens have agreed to protect construction workers by requiring that their bosses give water breaks, the state has superseded the people’s wishes with the spartan standard loved by the construction bosses.
Labor experts agree, workers will die as a result.
The State’s Argument: Safety Regulations are Bad for Business
State Sen. Brandon Creighton, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, called it the “the most pro-business, pro-growth bill” of the session. “HB 2127 gives Texas job creators the certainty they need to invest and expand by providing statewide consistency and ending the days of activist local officials creating a patchwork of regulation outside their jurisdiction,” Creighton said in a statement.
Other proponents of the law say that construction managers don’t benefit when their workers collapse in the heat, so water-break laws are not necessary. They argue that management will take care of their workers because it makes good business sense.
A Metal Worker Pushes Back
“The people defending that Texas override with those arguments about ‘good for business’ have no idea what construction work is like in the real world where non-union management is more interested in making money than they are in keeping workers safe,” one New York City metal worker told Union-Built Matters. He asked to remain anonymous because he fears retribution from his managers for speaking out in this issue.
“This is a New York issue too, don’t be fooled,” he said. Indeed, similar legislation that would have required worker protections here in New York — including shade and water breaks for outdoor laborers in extreme weather — died in committee earlier this month.
The laborer said, “I have been working non-union in this city for years. More often than not the people running the companies I’ve been at have driven us (the workers) hard to meet deadlines and keep costs down. Anything that feels like it’s taking money out of their pockets, those are the things they come down on you for. I’ve seen people fired for asking for overtime. For asking for benefits. I’ve seen people fired for taking a lunch break on the wrong day. Don’t kid yourself that these people want us all to be happy and healthy on the job. If a water break cuts into work time, that will not be something they like at all. Without a law on the books, you’re going to have managers abusing workers in hot conditions. It happens today in New York.”
According to the National Library of Medicine, construction workers are six times more likely to suffer heat related death and injury than other laborers. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that as non-union contractors take a larger share of the construction business, the number of annual construction deaths due to environmental heat has been trending upward. In 2014 there were 18 such deaths nationwide, and in 2020 there were 57.
When told about this data point, the metal worker we talked to replied, “Do I look surprised?”
Gabriel Infante was 24 years old when he collapsed in 100-plus degree heat on a San Antonio construction job. He died later that day in the hospital after having a body temperature of nearly 110 degrees. He is pictured with his mother on the right.
A Texas Worker Dies in the Heat
In San Antonio, Texas, on June 14, 24-year-old Gabriel Infante, working for a non-union construction company, collapsed in 100-degree heat. His colleague called emergency medical services, and when they arrived the foreman on the job demanded they do a drug test on Mr. Infante. He thought the young man’s odd behavior was due to drug use. It was not. Later that day Mr. Infante died in the hospital from heatstroke. He had a recorded internal temperature of 109.8 degrees, putting an ironic exclamation point on Governor Abbot’s ban on water-break requirements.
That colleague who called for help for Mr. Infante told the Guardian, “Greg Abbott doesn’t care about workers at all.”
We’ll give the last word on this subject to the anonymous metal laborer working for a non-union construction contractor in New York: “I am wise to what this heat can do to your body. I will be taking my water breaks even if I have to sneak them in and risk getting fired for it. I’m not dying so my boss can get richer. If I was in a union, this wouldn’t worry me so much. They take care of their people.”
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