A right to drink? Inside the debate to protect US workers against the heat

As summer intensifies, so too does the scrutiny over the US’s lack of workplace protections against environmental heat.

A man in a ballcap and faded red T-shirt pours the last drops of a plastic water bottle into his mouth. Behind him are boxes stacked high.
Texas and Florida have passed state laws to ban local ordinances mandating water and rest breaks during extreme heat [File: Jeff Roberson/AP Photo]

Dallas, Texas – More than a decade later, Eva Marroquin’s voice still shakes when she talks about it.

The 51-year-old mother of five had been working construction in Austin, Texas, for about five years when she heard that a friend had died of heat exposure at a worksite. It was 2012, and he had been helping to build a bridge at the intersection of two local highways.

“He just couldn’t get to the water in time,” Marroquin said.

The news shook Marroquin, who had experienced her own close calls with the sweltering temperatures that broil the southern United States in the summertime.

After days of painting walls or cleaning up sites, Marroquin’s face would burn red in the heat. Sometimes, she felt feverish and dizzy. Her throat would even close. It left her with haunting thoughts of what her friend must have lived through in his final moments.

“I distinctly remember how that felt, and it made me want to speak up even more,” Marroquin told Al Jazeera.

Marroquin is among the advocates pushing for greater protections for workers facing extreme temperatures in the US.

The US Department of Health and Human Services found that heat-related deaths overall have been on the rise, as climate change drives temperatures to new heights. In 2023, an estimated 2,302 people died from heat-related conditions, up from 1,722 in 2022 and 1,602 in 2021.

But in the US, there are no federal protections specifically designed to protect workers from environmental heat.

Marroquin and other workplace advocates are lobbying to change that — but in the meantime, state and local governments in the US have been duking it out over the authority to protect workers from the stifling heat.

Construction workers stand outside a wooden fence in hard hats.
Employees in Riverwoods, Illinois, work through a heat dome that spread across the midwestern and northeastern United States on June 17 [Nam Y Huh/AP Photo]

A fight between state and local authority

On July 1, a new law comes into effect in Florida that reflects those tensions.

Last summer was the hottest on record in the state, prompting Miami-Dade County to consider an ordinance that would mandate heat safety training, regular breaks and access to water during high-temperature days.

But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis blocked that attempt, signing a law that instead banned local governments from establishing their own workplace safety requirements for heat exposure.

“There was a lot of concern out of one county, Miami-Dade,” DeSantis told local press at the time, warning that the local ordinance would have caused “a lot of problems”.

Florida was the second state in recent months to pass such a law. In 2023, Texas Governor Greg Abbott also signed what critics called the “Death Star” bill — so named for its ability to destroy local regulations that went beyond existing state mandates.

It, too, prevented municipalities from implementing their own heat safety laws, effectively killing ordinances in areas like Austin and Dallas. Houston and other cities have challenged the law in court.

As in Florida, however, proponents of the law have argued that a patchwork of local regulations would be too cumbersome for companies to navigate. Business groups also warned of “local government overreach”.

“The Texas law is mostly focused on preventing the big municipalities from doing basically anything that might make doing business in Texas inconvenient or location-specific,” said Alison Grinter, a civil rights lawyer in the Dallas metropolitan area.

She explained that the oil and gas industries have long held sway in Texas politics and helped craft the state’s business-friendly reputation. That, in turn, has attracted technology and finance companies to the state as well.

Grinter added that part of the motive for blocking the local ordinances was also political. While the Texas state government is dominated by Republicans, several of its biggest cities — including Houston and Austin — are led by Democrats.

“For culture war purposes, the idea that there are four or five different big oases in the middle of the state that are sanctuaries from all of the reactionary social laws really galls lawmakers,” Grinter said.

Still, only five states have taken it upon themselves to pass heat-exposure protections. They include California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Minnesota.

“The Texas government doesn’t want local laws, but they also don’t want a statewide law,” said Ana Gonzalez of the Texas AFL-CIO, a labour union. “So workers are stuck.”

Governor Ron DeSantis speaks into a microphone in front of a screen that shows his presidential campaign logo.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill this year that bans local governments from passing their own standards for environmental heat safety [File: Michael Dwyer/AP Photo]

Petitioning the federal government

That gridlock on the state and local level has shifted the battle over workplace protections to the federal government.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates that employers implement a workplace safety policy, but it does not indicate how that policy must address heat protection.

That may be changing, though. In 2021, OSHA announced it would start to develop a rule to mitigate the risks of heat-related injuries and deaths for workers, and a spokesperson, Kimberly Darby, told Al Jazeera that this month marked an important step forward.

“Last week, OSHA’s proposed rule was sent to the Office of Management and Budget for review,” Darby said. “We are another step closer to giving workers the protections they need and deserve.”

The proposed rule, however, has yet to be published — and its exact contents are therefore unknown. In addition, new OSHA rules can take years to achieve final approval.

So some advocates are looking to another federal body: the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA.

On June 17, 31 organisations — including immigrants’ rights groups, environmental nonprofits and farmworkers unions — petitioned FEMA (PDF) to provide disaster relief funds for extreme heat, as well as areas affected by wildfire smoke.

It is part of a broader effort to convince the federal government to step in for their local counterparts, according to Will Humble, who signed the petition on behalf of the Arizona Public Health Association, a nonprofit.

“Planning for and saving lives is a state and local responsibility,” Humble told Al Jazeera. “But FEMA really should include heat emergencies in their funding. Many county health departments are understaffed.”

An electronic billboard shows the temperature to be 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Behind the billboard, the skyline of Phoenix, Arizona, is lit by an orange sunset.
Cities like Phoenix, Arizona, reported a record number of days with triple-digit heat last year [File: Matt York/AP Photo]

‘Not seen as human’

In the absence of strong federal action, activists like Christine Bolaños say that employers are left with all the power to decide how to address extreme heat in the workplace, leaving workers at risk.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), at least 600 workers died from heat exposure while working from 2005 to 2021. An additional 43 deaths were documented in 2022 alone.

Experts indicate the actual number is likely higher, as heat-related deaths are difficult to track.

A broad swath of the workforce is at risk, too. The bureau estimates that 33 percent of American employees spend time outdoors as part of their everyday work.

Especially vulnerable are foreign-born Latino labourers, including both legal and undocumented immigrants, who represent a disproportionate number of work-related deaths.

Though these workers make up only 8.2 percent of the workforce, they represent 14 percent of on-the-job fatalities. The bureau also noted that Latino workers make up the majority of the construction and agricultural labour, two industries where heat exposure is an acute risk.

Bolaños — a staff member at the Workers Defense Project, a community organisation that fights for the rights of low-wage immigrant construction workers in Texas — said the heightened risks are part of a pattern of exploitation.

“Immigrant workers are especially prone to wage theft and other violations of their rights, and they’re often not aware of their rights,” said Bolaños.

The lack of heat-related protections, she added, was a reflection of how workplaces perceive these employees.

“Sometimes, they’re not seen as human,” Bolaños said. “They are not valued for their humanity, just what they can produce. Employers forget workers need to drink water. They need shade; they need breaks.”

Representative Greg Casar stands in front of the Capitol dome with fellow demonstrators.
US Representative Greg Casar of Texas has led ‘thirst strikes’ on the steps of the US Capitol [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

‘The monster is here’

Congressman Greg Casar, a Texas Democrat, believes part of the problem is also scepticism towards climate change itself — and a resistance to addressing its dangers.

“Many of us progressives used to campaign on ‘the climate crisis is coming,’ and we were accused of making up a monster that didn’t exist,” Casar told Al Jazeera.

“Now the monster is here, and the things we’re fighting for have become so basic. We’re arguing over food and housing. We’re arguing over people having the right to a water break.”

Casar has spent years organising demonstrations to showcase the plight of workers — including through “thirst strikes”, where he and others refused to drink for hours, to demonstrate the risks of extreme heat.

At a “thirst strike” last year, Marroquin’s coarse, strong hands clutched a sign that read, “PEOPLE OVER PROFITS”.

Tears flowed from her eyes, which she says have been damaged by the sun and heat. She explained she developed pterygium, a kind of fleshy growth near one of her eyes, from her exposure to hot, dry conditions.

Now, a year later, Marroquin told Al Jazeera she hopes change will come soon. Just this month, she spoke to OSHA about her experience and gave feedback on the forthcoming federal rule.

“It’s really difficult to implement laws about work,” she conceded. “But we have to demand that OSHA implements rules as a whole across construction sites, in the same way they demand scaffolding is built in a certain way.”

But even with a federal standard on the way, advocates and legal experts are wary. Several told Al Jazeera that new OSHA rules are notoriously difficult to pass because of understaffing and a high standard of review, as well as potential legal challenges.

Gonzalez, the advocate from the Texas AFL-CIO, said she was bracing for the mandatory public commenting period for the eventual rule — at which time, she expects corporations to weigh in.

“I’m sure there will be pushback from the state or associations, because the rule will impact all industries,” she said. “But hopefully, this is going to prevent people from dying.”

Source: Al Jazeera