One of the photographs of my father that I clearly remember appeared in the pages of the Bloomfield Democrat some 60 years ago.
Daddy was chest-deep in a hastily dug hole across the street from Bloomfield town square. His face was grim. There was urgent work to be done, because much of Bloomfield was without water.
An underground pipe had breached a block in the city’s water tower. Water gushed out into the street and flooded the basements of nearby businesses.
There, in that hole with water pooling around his ankles, Pop stirred up manure and mud to expose the leaking pipe so he could repair it.
Unlike my father, I had a smooth working life. I spent much of my career in an air-conditioned office. The old photo shows that Pop was not so lucky. He worked hard for the city of Bloomfield’s water department, wielding a shovel or hanging from a jackhammer, before going on to operate the city’s water treatment plant.
Their work days ranged from freezing to sweltering and everything in between. Usually, he could take time out to have a few gulps of water from a pitcher on hot days or some hot coffee from a thermos when he needed to thaw out.
But in Texas, not all working stiffs are as lucky as Pop was. We have the Texas Legislature and Governor Greg Abbott to thank for that.
Summers are getting hotter, much hotter, and these severe heat waves are expected to occur more frequently.
Scientists tell us that Earth experienced the hottest June on record. In a large swath of the South, from California to Florida, people have endured a series of days with temperatures in the 100-plus degrees. The “heat index,” what scientists describe as the temperature it “feels like,” has hovered around an uncomfortable 115 degrees.
In Texas, two dozen people have died from heat-related causes in recent weeks. Last year in that state, public health officials put the total number of deaths from excessive heat at 300. Nationally, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that an average of 700 people they die every year from dangerously high heat.
That’s why it defies common sense and public safety for Texas political leaders to enact a new law that now prevents cities and counties from adopting regulations requiring business owners to provide a 10-minute break every four hours. to their employees who work outside.
Think roofers, carpenters, landscapers, farm workers, delivery guys, and those shovel-wielding folks like Pop. They can’t park behind a desk while the air conditioner keeps the room at a comfortable 72 degrees.
“Banning required breaks for construction workers in the Texas heat is deadly,” the Texas AFL-CIO labor group said in a social media post.
David Cruz of LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino civil rights organization, told the guardian news site: “In the midst of an unprecedented heat wave, I couldn’t think of a worse time for this governor or any elected official to have any kind of compassion to do this.”
His comments are not hypothetical hand wringing.
The National Weather Service has warned people in recent weeks: “Persistent, oppressive heat will become increasingly dangerous and life-threatening in South and South-Central Texas, especially for those repeatedly exposed over long periods of time. Many places in those parts of Texas have already experienced a record number of hours of dangerously high heat index readings per year.”
A 35-year-old utility lineman has died of apparent heat-related complications after working all day in 100 degrees while restoring storm-damaged electrical service in Marshall, Texas. A 66-year-old mail carrier collapsed in a Dallas, Texas, backyard while delivering mail on a day when the heat index reached 112 degrees.
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration is working on rules that all employers should follow to protect their workers from heat-related hazards on the job. But such regulations are still more than a year away.
There has always been debate about the role of government in regulating workplace safety, motor vehicle safety, and water quality. These regulations, while controversial to some, have been embraced by legislators and administrators because they serve the common good.
It should be the same for adaptations to protect workers in times of extreme heat.
Advocates of restricting the regulatory powers of local governments defended the new Texas law. They said it removes a “hodgepodge of burdensome and burdensome regulations” for businesses.
Of course, what defenders don’t address are a couple of details that are hard to ignore:
One way to eliminate the heavy hodgepodge would have been for lawmakers to enact a statewide requirement for 10-minute breaks. It’s also worth noting that a state law would have had no effect on employers who already voluntarily provided regular time for outdoor workers to seek shade and drink water.
Cruz, the LULAC official, said the local regulations that lawmakers struck down had a minimal cost to Texas businesses: 20 minutes per day to protect their employees from serious injury or death.
“We have to defend what is human,” he told reporters.
He new republic magazine was not so courteous. His article on the new Texas law carried this headline: “Texas Republican Party Offers Workers Freedom to Boil Alive.”