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Texas Governor Outlaws Life-Saving Water Breaks for Workers as Climate Crisis Fuels Heat Waves

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Image Credit: Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters

We take a closer look at the impact of the massive heat dome in Texas, where extreme heat is bearing down on some of the state’s most vulnerable populations, including workers and prisoners. At least three people have died after working in triple-digit heat, just as Republican Governor Greg Abbott signs into law a new measure that overrides mandatory water breaks for workers. Meanwhile, 32 people have been reported to have died in Texas prisons, most of which lack air conditioning and are prone to increased rates of heat-induced cardiac events. We are joined on Democracy Now! by Steven Monacelli in Dallas, who is The Texas Observer’s special investigative correspondent. His recent piece is headlined “Texans Die from Heat After Governor Bans Mandatory Water Breaks.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to stay in Texas to look at the impact of the massive heat dome and extreme heat on Texas workers and prisoners. News reports show at least three people have died after working in triple-digit heat: a post office worker in Dallas, a utility lineman in East Texas and a construction worker in Houston. This comes as the Republican Governor Greg Abbott just signed into law a law that went into effect July 1st that overrides local ordinances that require mandatory water breaks for workers.

Meanwhile, during record heat in June, news reports show 32 people died in Texas prisons, most of which lack air conditioning. None were officially attributed to heat, but they included prisoners in their thirties who died from heart attacks or cardiac arrest in the uncooled prisons as temperatures soared into the triple digits.

For more, we go to Dallas, where we’re joined by The Texas Observer’s special investigative correspondent Steven Monacelli, whose recent piece is headlined “Texans Die from Heat After Governor Bans Mandatory Water Breaks.”

Why don’t, Steven, we start right there? Talk about the law that now bans water breaks.

STEVEN MONACELLI: So, the ban on water breaks is a part of a larger bill, H.B. 2127, otherwise known as the “Death Star,” which it has been dubbed by critics for its capacity to effectively zap any local legislation that is preempted by the bill. The bill preempts local legislation in eight different areas, including labor. And specifically, the bill did mention worker breaks as being subject to this preemption.

Now, to be clear, the bill does not actually go into effect until September 1st, but we have already seen a shocking number of deaths amid the record heat wave — the three that you mentioned; there is at least 11 in a county in Texas where a lot of people did not have air conditioning; and two individuals, a stepfather and his stepson, at a national park. The heat is oppressive and deadly. And Texas has a history of more workers dying on the job due to heat-related illness than pretty much any other state. And so, as this bill — you know, as we approach the date for its coming into effect, a lot of local communities are concerned that the breaks that have been won through passage of legislation in Austin and Dallas, two more liberal cities in the state, those will be rolled back if a lawsuit that’s been filed does not put a stay on the bill.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about who are the workers largely affected by this legislation, especially in the cities that you mentioned?

STEVEN MONACELLI: Yes. So, you had mentioned — Amy had mentioned construction workers being a group of folks that would no longer get these mandatory water breaks. The mandatory water break legislation that was passed in cities like Austin and Dallas, and being considered in cities like San Antonio prior to the passage of the “Death Star” bill, effectively forced employers who have workers outside to give them water breaks. And these water breaks had to be mandatory. It was not sort of a discretionary thing that had to be put in place. And the first of these was passed in 2010 in Austin, and in Dallas in 2015.

And over the period of time since, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in workplace-related heat illness and heat death. Workplace-related heat illness dropped by 78% since 2011. And workplace-related deaths due to heat dropped by half. So, workers, such as construction workers, yard workers, post office workers, utility line workers, anyone who has to spend a significant portion of their time outside to get their job done, will be impacted by this.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steven, before we go, we want to ask you about prisoners. What’s happening when the heat soars in these prisons that are largely not air-conditioned?

STEVEN MONACELLI: Well, they effectively turn into ovens. You know, these concrete structures, where there’s no air conditioning in many of them across the state, they are cooking prisoners alive. There have been many days in which it is 90 degrees at 3:00 in the morning. There’s very little reprieve for the people who have to sit in these prison cells and face this heat. And the reality is, the vast majority of them have not been given death sentences. And, you know, the treatment that they’re facing is, frankly, inhumane.

AMY GOODMAN: And the numbers? News reports show 32 people died in Texas prisons?

STEVEN MONACELLI: Yes, yes, 32. And Texas prisons are notoriously — they don’t like to give up the records. They’re notoriously stingy with the records that they give up. So, the exact cause of death for all of these prisoners is as yet unknown and still being investigated. But I think a very likely contributing cause would be hypothermia.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Monacelli, we want to thank you for being with us, special investigative correspondent at The Texas Observer. We’ll link to your piece, “Texans Die from Heat After Governor Bans Mandatory Water Breaks.”

Next up, we’ll speak with a TV meteorologist who resigned his job after receiving a death threat over his reporting on the climate emergency in Iowa. Back in 30 seconds.

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