Politics of Poverty

It's not the heat, it's the inhumanity

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roofer in heat
Even in the mildest weather, construction jobs are some of the most dangerous in the country; the blasting sun and sizzling temperatures of summer increase the hazards. Texas just overrode mandates in Austin and Dallas that require protections for construction workers in extreme heat. While the state was experiencing a heat wave that made it the hottest place on the planet. Image: Pictrider

Honestly? This is simple. It’s very, very hot outside—much hotter than it used to be, much hotter than it should be—sizzling, scorching, scalding. When it gets this hot, people who have to work outside should be protected with simple measures: shade, water, rest. So why did the state with the highest number of worker heat fatalities just roll back the few flimsy protections it had in place?

In the middle of a scorching summer, as people are dying on the job from heat-related illnesses, Texas Governor Greg Abbott just signed a law that repeals life-saving protections for construction workers in Dallas and Austin. Thereby denying them water and rest breaks. What is going on?

First, how hot is it?

It’s hotter, probably, than it’s been in 125,000 years. July 4th, 2023 saw a confluence of forces that caused temperatures across the globe to soar to record levels: climate change, El Niño, and the start of summer in the northern hemisphere.

The Washington Post’s extreme heat tracker estimates that on the Fourth, 57 million people were exposed to dangerous heat in the U.S. Also this month, China experienced a record-breaking heat wave, and temperatures in North Africa reached 122 degrees F.

(For a stark illustration of how much, and how quickly, the climate is heating up, please refer to the animation on this blog. Read more on the role of fossil fuels.)

The Washington Post maps the heat index for the U.S. to assess risk each day. https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/interactive/2023/heat-waves-map-us-tracker/

Second, how dangerous is it?

This kind of heat is, simply, life-threatening to human beings. And it is particularly hazardous if you are engaging in physical activity that raises your body temperature.

Exposure to extreme heat can result in heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and more—and it can be fatal. The CDC reports that heat is the top weather-related killer in the U.S.in the world, causing more than 600 deaths every year.

So far this year in Texas (experiencing a stretch of extremely hot weather), at least 13 people have died from heat-related illness. In 2021, there were 36 work-related deaths in the US from heat exposure.

As global temperatures are only heading upward, it’s urgent to enact measures to protect the lives of workers exposed to heat on the job.

Third, how should people protect themselves?

Experts (and workers) agree on what’s needed to protect fragile humans from extreme heat: water, shade, rest, and acclimatization. The goal is to prevent core body temperature from rising too high and endangering vital organs; this is a long-term as well as short-term threat. (There’s more to do, of course, including training on heat-related illnesses and an emergency medical plan.)

But too often, people doing outdoor jobs lack access to the measures that mitigate the risk of illness and death.

Fourth, how do we mandate protections for workers?

While the federal government has dragged its feet on establishing and enforcing a national heat standard, some states have stepped up and implemented their own guidelines. (More on the need for a federal heat standard.) California, Oregon, and Washington passed laws that establish protections for outdoor workers; Colorado passed protections for farmworkers; and Minnesota has a law for indoor workers.

These measures have surely saved lives, as employers are required to provide water, shade, and rest breaks when the temperature hits a designated number.

Fifth, WHAT is going on in Texas?

Given the above, it may come as a shock to learn that Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the “Death Star” bill in June (or the “Texas Regulatory Consistency Act”), that would repeal ordinances in Dallas and Austin requiring water breaks and rest for construction workers as of September 1.

Shortly thereafter, two workers in Texas—a postal worker and an electrical lineman—died of heat-related illness. Just before that, a construction worker collapsed on the job and died from hyperthermia.

Why do we NOT mandate protections?

As we’ve noted more than a few times, the U.S. has a stratified labor market that is built on well-worn grooves of inequality along lines of race, class, and gender. The economy maintains an underclass of people who do the 3-D work (difficult, dangerous, and dehumanized)—work that people with more options are not willing to do, and that is not just 3-D, but also offers low wages and scant benefits.

This work includes arduous and hazardous jobs such as agriculture, meat and poultry processing, construction, warehouse work, and seafood processing. Conditions are harsh, hours are long. Even though this work provides the most essential goods and services in our economy: food, buildings, supplies.

These are, simply, undervalued and often exhausting jobs, and the economy relies on people who are economically desperate and marginalized enough to do them. For example, 73 percent of farmworkers were born outside the U.S.; nearly half of them are undocumented immigrants.

So… who is working outside on the hottest day in recorded history?

People who are vulnerable to the dictates of employers. Which is to say, disproportionately BIPOC, and immigrants and refugees. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes, “Outdoor workers, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, have a much higher risk of dying from heat exposure than the general population.”

And who are the people who don’t care if these people are collapsing and dying on the job? Employers who care more about the bottom line than the well-being of their workforce; and politicians who are beholden to those employers.

And you can be sure these people are spending their days in air-conditioned offices and homes while they work and relax.

Again, it’s simple. Unfettered capitalism and the racism that thrives within it are as dangerous as blistering heat waves. It’s time to tackle all these problems as related, and dangerous to all our health.


When states do pass laws that support and protect workers, it’s because people have organized and demanded change. We reported on how the UFW mobilizes workers in California to advocate for change, including a robust heat standard.

Our good friends at NCOSH have published loads of information about the need for protections from extreme heat. Check out this useful video; and the resources on this page.

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