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Texas workers are speaking up before the ban on guaranteed water breaks starts

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Texas, water breaks for outdoor workers will no longer be mandatory under a new law that takes effect soon. It's a big safety issue for workers everywhere in this era of climate change, but especially in a state like Texas, which has seen record-setting heat this summer. Now some in the Lone Star State are pushing the Biden administration to adopt federal standards to try to protect employees from heat-related illness. Andrew Weber from member station KUT in Austin reports.

ANDREW WEBER, BYLINE: Chances are, if you go anywhere around downtown Austin right now and point to a building, James Roosa probably had a hand in building it.

JAMES ROOSA: We do build the skyline. So I mean, I've done so many, I can't even remember them all anymore, you know?

WEBER: I met the veteran steelworker on a job site on the last day of the hottest July on record in Austin's history, at least since they started keeping records back in 1898. This summer, he's been building a new office tower downtown. Roosa, like any Texan, will tell you, yes, Texas has been pretty bad this summer. So he says outdoor crews, like his, have to have each other's backs.

ROOSA: Because you might just be going, going, going. And your partner is like, man, you know what? You stopped sweating. You're not sweating anymore and it's over a hundred degrees. You should be sweating. I think you need to sit down. So you got to look out for each other.

WEBER: If you're working on a big construction site like this one in downtown Austin, right now, ground temperatures are above 120 degrees at least. And most workers here are putting in 10- to 12-hour days, days that are just getting hotter and hotter. Roosa, a foreman, says hydrating is a matter of safety and survival.

ROOSA: I don't care what the company says. My guy looks like he needs a break, he's getting a break.

WEBER: But that practice, just making sure workers get water breaks, is a city law in Austin and Dallas, too. But a new statewide law that goes into effect in September could supersede those local rules. The GOP-controlled Texas legislature passed that law earlier this year. Republican State Senator Brandon Creighton carried the bill in the Texas Senate. He argued having a rule requiring rest breaks for outdoor workers in one city and not another hurts businesses.

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BRANDON CREIGHTON: For many sessions, I've pursued legislation that addressed specific instances where activist cities were enacting job-killing ordinances.

WEBER: U.S. Congressman Greg Casar disagrees. Before running for Congress, he helped pass that local law requiring water breaks for outdoor workers, at least one 10-minute break every four hours. The Austin Democrat says the city law needs to exist because there are no federal standards to help prevent heat stroke or heat-related illness for outdoor workers.

GREG CASAR: A lot of folks have asked me, how could it be that there aren't actual rules and laws guaranteeing people the right to come off of a scaffold or get out of the sun and get a drink of water? The tough truth is that those rules don't exist.

WEBER: The risks for people working outside are only increasing with the onslaught of climate change, says Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

JOHN NIELSEN-GAMMON: Both because of the rising temperatures and the rising amount of moisture in the atmosphere, heat stress is expected to become a increasing danger for outdoor workers.

WEBER: Texas' record-breaking heat this summer has led to at least a dozen deaths, but experts say that number is likely higher. In Austin, the majority of calls this summer to the city's paramedics have been for outdoor workers suffering heat exhaustion. So Congressman Casar is trying to establish a federal standard, one that would supersede Texas' law. That would require a rule change by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency in charge of enforcing federal labor standards. But OSHA has failed to do that for more than a decade.

CASAR: That's just totally unacceptable. And so I think we have to fast-track it. And fast-tracking for the federal government means a year.

WEBER: Casar held a thirst strike on the Capitol steps last month, which pushed the Biden administration to start that fast-tracking process. Meantime, Houston and San Antonio have sued the state over the water break law to block it. And while there likely won't be any protections for construction workers this time next year, the construction foreman, Roosa, says he'll keep working outdoors and hydrating as Austin's skyline keeps growing.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Weber in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINUTEMEN'S "COHESION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Weber is a freelance reporter and associate editor for KUT News. A graduate of St. Edward's University with a degree in English, Andrew has previously interned with The Texas Tribune, The Austin American-Statesman and KOOP Radio.