There was a time last year when Maynor Alvarez thought he would suffocate from Houston’s summer heat. He was on a paint job at an apartment without air-conditioning, standing on a ladder for hours. He felt himself getting sick and dizzy, overwhelmed by the heat that felt like he was standing inside an oven. 

Alvarez said he left the job to find air-conditioning, but when he came back after feeling better, he was told he could not return. The contractors would find someone to take his place.

Alvarez is one of thousands of construction workers who work in Houston’s sweltering summer heat. For the past few weeks, temperatures in Texas repeatedly have reached triple digits, with days feeling as hot as 110 to 115 degrees. 

Between 2011 and 2021, there were 42 work-related heat deaths in Texas – the most of any state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most recently, a construction worker in Fort Bend collapsed and died on the job. Earlier in June, another worker suffered heat stroke and died in San Antonio. 

Health care professionals and workers’ advocates long have demanded safety considerations for workers during the summer, such as allowing them to drink water frequently, taking breaks in the shade or air-conditioning and adjusting hours to avoid the worst of the heat. Workers in Texas, however, have few rights on the job when it comes to the summer heat. 

There are no rules or regulations at the city, county or state level to protect workers from the heat. And companies are not required by any agency to specifically address those concerns. 

Only the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has some power to step in, according to Ana Gonzalez, director of politics and policy at the Texas AFL-CIO. 

“I will say that all workers, regardless of their immigration status, or where they work or the size of their employer, all workers have a right to a safe workplace,” said Gonzalez. “That is required by OSHA.” 

Employers are required to provide safe and healthful working conditions for their employees, according to OSHA’s general duty clause, and are subject to citation if they fail to protect workers from recognized hazards, including conditions that can lead to heat illness. 

The agency’s compliance officers evaluate workplaces on a case-by-case basis, according to OSHA. 

However, OSHA does not have any standards specifically addressing heat-related hazards, which Gonzalez said can make filing a complaint tricky. Most of the time, the general duty clause only applies to extreme cases, such as someone dying from the heat while working on the job. 

OSHA said implementing a permanent heat workplace safety rule is a top priority. Still, advocates want to see local control too.

“It should not have to get to someone losing their life because this is preventable,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve been saying OSHA is not enough. I mean, Texas is a huge state and there are a lot of complaints. It’s really important we have local government control to make our communities safe.” 

In Houston, the city provides its public works employees a break every four hours in addition to a lunch break, said Katelynn Burns, director of communications for Houston Public Works. In extreme weather, such as heat or rain, managers and supervisors are authorized to take necessary precautions. That could include additional breaks, more shade and air-conditioning and adjusting work shifts to keep workers out of the heat. 

Workers who are not city employees are guaranteed none of those benefits.

Aimee Bertrand, the CEO of the Greater Houston Builders Association, said the organization focuses on training and education for members to be in compliance with state and federal requirements for workplace safety. June is the organization’s national safety month, which includes information on heat stress.

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    Dallas and Austin have city ordinances that require water breaks for construction workers – which will continue to be required until House Bill 2127 goes into effect September 1. The preemption law, which bars city and counties from implementing local regulations not expressly authorized by the state, will eliminate the Dallas and Austin ordinances and prevent other cities, including Houston, from implementing any similar measure. 

    While the Texas’ current labor code includes a section that requires employers to provide a reasonably safe and healthful workspace, it does not include specific language about breaks or heat. 

    State Rep. Terry Meza, D-Irving, and state Sen. Pete Flores, R-San Antonio, introduced two bills to address heat safety precautions and rest breaks in the labor code, but neither bill got a hearing during this year’s regular session. 

    After 18 years working construction, the 42-year-old Alvarez said he knows his body and when he needs to stop working because of the heat, regardless of the repercussions.

    Other workers, however, such as new recruits or those who are in the country illegally, do not always understand how dangerous it can be. 

    “They don’t know their bodies,” Alvarez said in Spanish. “They don’t know this heat and they are too scared to say anything about it. They’ll keep working even when they should stop.” 

    Staff writer Angelica Perez contributed to this story.

    What workers can do

    For workers who believe their employers are not providing sufficient protection from the heat, the Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit focused on the injustices for workers in Texas, recommends the following: 

    • Workers can call OSHA at 800-321-6742. Callers can report anonymously and should not worry about their residency status. 
    • If a worker shows signs of heat exhaustion or a stroke, call 911 immediately for emergency medical services. 
    • Workers can call the Workers Defense Project in Houston at 832-312-2191 or 281-844-5146 to learn more about their rights and how to enforce them.

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    Elena Bruess covers the environment for the Houston Landing. She comes to Houston after two years at the San Antonio Express-News, where she covered the environment, climate and water. Elena previously...