In December 2015, shortly after the protest, Dallas became the second city in Texas to pass an ordinance mandating water breaks for construction workers, following Austin in 2010. These protections, however, were rescinded last month when the state legislature implemented a new law blocking the local ordinances.

“I was baffled,” Granillo said. “You should be able to sit down and have a water break if you need to — if your life is on the line.”

As climate change fuels record high temperatures across the country, the number of workers who die from heat on the job has doubled since the early 1990s. Over 600 people died on the job from heat between 2005 and 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But federal regulators say these numbers are “vast underestimates,” because the health impacts of heat, the deadliest form of weather event, are infamously hard to track, especially in work environments. Medical examiners often misrepresent heat stroke as other illnesses, like heart failure, making them easy cases for workplace safety inspectors to miss. Some researchers estimate that the number of workplace fatalities is more likely in the thousands — every year.

Workers who already lack labor rights are often the most at risk. In many states, undocumented laborers drive outdoor industries like agriculture, landscaping, and construction. Labor advocates say it’s easier for these workers to be denied basic necessities like water, rest breaks, or even time to use the bathroom because many fear that they’ll be retaliated against and deported if they report unsafe working conditions. Between 2010 and 2021, one-third of all worker heat fatalities were Latinos.

Yet there are almost no regulations at local, state, or federal levels across the United States to protect workers.

In 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, announced its intent to start the process of creating protections to mandate access to water, rest, and shade for outdoor workers exposed to dangerous levels of heat. But it’s uncertain whether such a rule will ever be implemented, and most OSHA regulations take an average of seven years to be finalized. In July, Democratic representatives introduced a bill that would force OSHA to speed up this process. It was their third attempt. They have failed to secure enough votes every time.

In the absence of federal protections, some states have attempted to pass their own regulations after experiencing worker fatalities during record-breaking heat waves. But trade groups for impacted industries, like agriculture and construction, have strongly opposed these efforts, claiming that such rules are costly and unnecessary. Statewide heat regulations have been blocked in some of the hottest regions of the county. Currently, just five states — California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Minnesota — have heat-related protections for workers.

“We’re asking for something so simple,” Granillo said. “Something that could save so many lives.”

Read the full article about extreme heat protections by Jana Cholakovska and Nate Rosenfield at Grist.