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Greg Casar calls for national standard to prevent heat-related illness, deaths on construction sites

 A construction worker works next to a large building under construction.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Congressman Greg Casar is calling for required rest breaks, proper hydration and training to deal with heat-related illness "as soon as possible."

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Amid an oppressive summer, Austin-San Antonio Congressman Greg Casar is calling on the federal government to enact stricter protections for workers to ensure they don't suffer heat-related illness on the job.

Casar, a former Austin City Council member, led efforts to establish the city's local protections, which require a 10-minute break every four hours for people working in the heat. He has penned a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to fast-track federal protections in light of a state law that will undo local rules in Dallas and Austin.

Texas' law was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June and goes into effect Sept. 1.

Casar says the letter, signed by more than 100 members of Congress, aims to speed up OSHA's rule-making process amid record-breaking summer temperatures in Austin and across the state.

"If the governor is going to try and take people's rest breaks away in this historic heat wave, then it's up to us in the United States Congress to go above the governor and give every single person the right to a drink of water and a break while they're working in this kind of sun," Casar said.

OSHA's rule-making process can take years. Typically, a rule is proposed, followed by a review process, and a draft rule is posted to the Federal Register. After a 30-to-60-day comment period, a federal agency – in this instance OSHA – can adopt the rule.

Casar's letter calls for the adoption of federal standards that would require rest breaks, proper hydration, and services and training to deal with heat-related illness "as soon as possible."

"Sometimes it will take seven or eight years for this to get done, and that's just not acceptable," he said. "Our letter is asking for this to be fast-tracked for an emergency rule to be put in place, and if it's not an emergency rule, at least in time for next summer – because the summers are only getting hotter."

Texas doesn't have state standards to prevent heat-related illness, and the process to establish federal standards has been in the works for the last few years. A 2021 analysis by The Texas Newsroom, NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations showed heat-related deaths on Texas' construction sites doubled in a decade, with 53 people dying on the job between 2010 and 2021.

Meanwhile, Austin has weathered two intense heat waves already this summer: one in which the city broke a record for a heat index, and another that brought a record number of consecutive days with at least 105-degree temperatures, according to the National Weather Service.

Absent federal protections, Casar said, local ordinances are needed to prevent deaths on job sites for construction workers – even if they aren't necessarily enforced. He argued the threat of enforcement was effective, pointing to a 2018 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that found Austin construction workers were 35% more likely to report getting water breaks after the ordinance passed.

"I don't think that water breaks ordinance was as enforced as it should have been," he said. "But just even having a law on the books – and the threat of enforcement – showed that a lot more Austin construction workers got water breaks thanks to that ordinance."

Both Houston and San Antonio, which was drafting similar protections, filed lawsuits this month to block the state law – known by opponents as the "Death Star" law – from going into effect in September.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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