How Federal Law Can Protect All Workers on Sweltering Summer Days

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

The heat index soared to 111 degrees in Houston, Texas, but the real-feel temperature climbed even higher than that inside the heavy personal protective equipment (PPE) that John Hayes and his colleagues at Ecoservices wear on the job.

Sweat poured from the workers clad in full-body hazardous materials suits, heavy gloves, splash hoods, and steel-toed boots as they sampled and processed chemicals from huge metal containers under a searing sun.

Fortunately, as members of the United Steelworkers (USW), these workers negotiated a policy requiring the chemical treatment company to provide shade, cool-down periods, and other measures to protect them during sweltering days.

But unless all Americans have commonsense safeguards like these, workers across the country will continue to get sick and die during ever-worsening heat waves.

The USW, other unions, and advocacy groups are calling on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to speedily enact a national standard specifying the minimum steps all employers need to take to safeguard workers from unprecedented and deadly bouts of heat.

Because of union advocacy, OSHA already has national standards that protect workers from falls, trench collapses, asbestos exposure, infectious diseases, injuries from equipment, and many other workplace hazards. It’s way past time to also protect workers from the heat waves that are growing more severe, lasting longer, and claiming more lives each year.

“Heat affects everybody. It doesn’t care about age,” observed Hayes, president of USW Local 227’s Ecoservices unit, who helped to negotiate the heat-related protections for about 70 workers in treatment services, maintenance, logistics, and other departments.

“There’s so many things they can come up with,” he said of OSHA officials.

The policy the union negotiated with Ecoservices requires low-cost, sensible measures like water, electrolytes, modified work schedules, tents and fans, and the authority to stop work when conditions become unhealthy and unsafe.

“If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, take your timeout,” Hayes reminds coworkers. “Don’t worry about it.”

In 2021, OSHA initiated efforts “to consider a heat-specific workplace rule.” In the meantime, states and local governments are free to make their own rules, let workers fend for themselves, or even put workers at greater risk.

While workers everywhere would benefit from a national heat standard, nowhere is the need more obvious than in Texas.

It’s one of the states hardest hit by the heat wave now blistering much of the country, with cities like Junction and Laredo shattering heat records.

Worse, in the midst of the crisis, right-wing Governor Greg Abbott signed a new law sweeping aside city and county ordinances mandating water breaks for construction workers. The so-called “Death Star law” is nothing but blatant pandering to Abbott’s corporate cronies at the expense of workers’ lives.

The law goes into effect on September 1. But in the three weeks from when Abbott signed it, at least three workers already died in the face of scorching conditions.

One was a letter carrier, another a utility lineman who traveled from West Virginia to Texas to restore power knocked out by the heat, and the third an otherwise healthy construction worker who collapsed while helping to meet Houston’s long-running building boom.

“We were called essential workers,” Hayes said, referring to Texans who remained at their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic to serve residents and keep the state operating. “Now some of us can’t even get a drink of water.”

Heat already ranks among the top causes of occupational incidents and death, according to Public Citizen’s analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources.

Heat can directly sicken or kill, as it did the Texas construction worker. But it also induces fatigue, dizziness, and cognitive impairments, leading to falls and other incidents on the job.

And with climate change fueling heat waves, workers face ever-greater risks.

While workers in the construction, agriculture, and other outdoor industries battle the sun, those working indoors face their own challenges from summer heat that’s magnified by steel beams, metal pipes, and energy-generating equipment.

“First of all, we’ve got huge furnaces that are melting down scrap aluminum to cast ingots,” explained David “Buzz” Sawyer, president of USW Local 309, which represents about 840 workers at two Arconic plants in Alcoa, Tennessee.

“It goes into the furnace, and from that point on, it’s either molten or relatively close to molten,” continued Sawyer, noting that welding jobs, a rolling mill, and other processes also expose workers to heat as they manufacture material for road signs, cars, and other products.

Like workers at Ecoservices, Local 309 members negotiated a contract with numerous protections, including the authority to stop work, in dangerous temperatures. “We’re the ones doing the work and know what a safer job looks like,” observed Sawyer.

Worker solidarity fuels the robust safety system. But a healthy, stable workforce is also in the company’s best interest, he said, noting the national heat standard is needed because some employers, as well as state officials like Abbott, lack both compassion and reason.

“How in the world can you deny your workers an opportunity to get a drink of water?” he said. “If you’re going to do that, what else are you going to do?”

Sawyer wants others to know about the strong safety measures that union members built at Arconic and to think, “We deserve it, too.”

At the end of a shift, he noted, “This is what takes you home to your family.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. The Rev Kev

    If you are going to Federally mandate the right to be able to drink water on the job, perhaps it should be done on a force-the-vote basis with actual recorded votes in the House and Senate instead of just a voice call. Flush out those that say that people do not have the right to water breaks in the middle of a relentless heat wave and it may be that with a looming election, that Congress may have to give the nod to this. Of course they will never let it go this far.

    1. t

      “How in the world can you deny your workers an opportunity to get a drink of water?” he said. “If you’re going to do that, what else are you going to do?”

      As we know, cruelty is the point. Voters and especially super Pac monsters who respond to all questions with “how dare they!” lovedy love this.

  2. Ben

    Having worked as a mining engineer, in Africa, for nearly 20 years the critical thing is not just the temperature but also the humidity. If the humidity is too high your sweat will not evaporate and you will quickly get heat stroke, go unconscious and die. This can happen within 5 to 10 minuets.

    It nearly happened to me when I was inspecting a poorly ventilated tunnel but I recognised the situation, found a hole in the ventilation duct, opened my overalls and laid down under a hole in the vent duct, the breeze increase the evaporation from my skin and I recovered.

  3. Amigauser

    Where will the union be, when the factory shuts down and moves to Mexico or other third world dump’s.
    Increasing the unit cost of labour, means either the factory will automate every job possible, or , move somewhere else.

  4. Piotr Berman

    The summers in Europe were definitely cooler than today around the time I graduated from university in Poland 45 years ago. I joined a group of students to spend a month in Italy (4-5 dollars per day, try it today!). Unfamiliar with sun+heat effects, I strolled around Florence after 12 pm, and in less than one hour I started to see black spots flickering in my vision. I think temperature was about 90 F.

    Under blasting sun, you need breaks not merely to drink. And the abolished ordinance of City of Austin guaranteed one 10 minute break for every 4 hours. With temperature above 90, this is not enough. In cultures adapted to heat over centuries, in summer they have 3-4 hour break starting at noon, to avoid work in maximum heat. That includes eating places which was funny for a student from the north.

    Deaths attributed to heat are a tip of the iceberg. Even if a worker is merely utterly exhausted, this is not humane, and it can cause accidents.

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