The summer heat is taking its toll across the country, and Texas is one state often affected by extreme temperatures. In some cities, local ordinances have protected workers laboring in that heat by mandating regular water breaks, but a new Texas law will eliminate those regulations. Opponents worry that the number of heat-related deaths could increase.
What the Law Stipulates
The new law nullifies local ordinances that have been in effect throughout the state, and it prohibits future local ordinances from being adopted. While its scope is rather broad, the minimum workplace water breaks are among the law’s specific targets. Regulations in Austin and Dallas called for 10-minute water breaks every four hours. The intent of those ordinances was to allow workers the time to seek shade and hydrate. San Antonio had been debating a similar mandate but now will not be allowed to consider it.
The Texas legislature passed House Bill 2127 in April of this year, and Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in June. It will go into effect on September 1.
Understanding the Risk for Construction Workers
More workers die from heat exposure in Texas than in any other state. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, there were at least 42 heat-related deaths for workers in Texas between the years 2011 and 2021. However, that statistic may be misleading because many heat-related deaths can be attributed to other causes of injury. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Latino workers are the most affected.
Heat waves can be severe, often proving more dangerous than other extreme weather events, such as floods and tornadoes. Last year, Texas experienced a drought and its second-hottest summer.
Union leaders are concerned that heat-related deaths will increase when the water breaks are eliminated.
“Construction is a deadly industry. Whatever the minimum protection is, it can save a life. We are talking about a human right,” said Ana Gonzalez, Texas AFL-CIO deputy director of policy and politics. “We will see more deaths, especially in Texas’ high temperatures.”
Reasoning for the Law
State Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) introduced the bill, which has become a solid attempt to curb local laws that go beyond state laws, specifically in areas related to natural resources, labor, and agriculture.
Supporters of the legislation believe that water breaks are unnecessary since OSHA already requires that workers have a safe environment. They contend that work safety issues are best left to OSHA, not to local lawmakers. In addition, many businesses celebrate the law since it will prevent them from being affected by local regulations.
Concerns about the Law
Some people who oppose the legislation point out that OSHA requirements are insufficient. OSHA mandates that employers protect their workers, but Texas workers are still dying from heat exposure. Although NIOSH has a recommended heat standard, and several states have their own heat standards, OSHA does not have a national heat standard. Therefore, the agency issues citations only after injury or death resulting from heat exposure. Opponents claim that OSHA takes no preventative action beforehand.
Other opponents are concerned that the law will have ramifications beyond the elimination of water breaks. They worry that local governments will be constrained from taking other actions, such as averting tenant evictions, controlling excessive noise, and deterring predatory lending.
What to Expect Next
While HB 2127 prohibits the local ordinances for water breaks, it does not prevent the pursuit of a state law. During the regular legislative session, lawmakers introduced two bills related to the issue.
House Bill 495 would have led to a state law mandating 10-minute breaks every four hours for contractors employed by a governmental entity. House Bill 4673 would have created a state advisory board to establish heat-prevention standards and set penalties for noncompliance. However, neither bill was successful.
It will be interesting to see how local governments react to the new law. In the meantime, employers are urged to comply with OSHA safety guidelines and ensure their workers are protected from heat and other factors.
The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation.
Trent Cotney is a partner and Construction Practice Group Leader at the law firm of Adams and Reese LLP. For more information, you can contact him at 1.866.303.5868 or firstname.lastname@example.org.