Sweltering Texas heat this weekend is a danger to outdoor workers

The U.S. National Weather Service warned of heat indexes Friday as high as 106 degrees across southeast Texas. By Saturday, highs across most of the state will climb higher than 100.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
A Republic Services worker in Houston assists with garbage collection on a summer afternoon. The company has been fined in the wake of heat-related deaths of workers but says it has implemented prevention policies. This worker was not interviewed for the story.

Temperatures are expected to reach upwards of high 90s across Texas Friday, with much of the western half of the state topping 100 degrees. The U.S. National Weather Service warned of heat indexes Friday as high as 106 degrees across southeast Texas. By Saturday, highs across most of the state will climb higher than 100.

The scorching heat wave across the state of Texas this week means dangerous conditions for people who work outdoors.

Heat deaths have doubled over the last decade: an investigation last year from the Texas Newsroom and Columbia Journalism Investigations found at least 53 people died working in the Texas heat since 2010. Many were workers of color and employed in trash collection, mining and fossil fuel extraction, and construction.

Hot Days: Heat’s Mounting Death Toll On Workers In The U.S.

With the high temperatures this weekend, construction workers are encouraged to follow OSHA's “golden rule”: water, rest and shade.

Fernando Moctezuma — the senior safety manager with Harvey-Cleary Builders, one of Houston’s largest construction companies — says their job sites make sure to have ice, filtered water and tents that offer shade.

"You know how your co-workers are on a daily basis, and (if) he seems to act a little bit different, to tell him ‘hey, stop what you're doing, let's get you in the shade, get you some water and report to us immediately if such a thing happens on the job site,’" Moctezuma said.

The National Weather Service is urging people outdoors to drink plenty of water and limit direct sun exposure.

Around 200 Harvey-Cleary employees met with OSHA personnel Friday to receive heat safety training ahead of the hot weekend, Moctezuma said. These trainings educate workers on the signs of heat illness and emphasize that workers need to look out for each other.

Harvey-Cleary has a policy that requires their employees, contractors and subcontractors to work in pairs or groups.

"Let’s say to do roof work, you cannot do any roof work by yourself," Moctezuma said. "You cannot be in a trench or an excavation by yourself, even if you’re a supervisor, it doesn’t matter."

NPR and CJI analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found a spike in the three-year average of U.S. worker heat deaths since 1990. Those included farm laborers in California and Nebraska, and construction workers and trash collectors in Texas.

Last year, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced new federal protections for workers, including prioritizing inspections on hot days and targeting certain high-risk industries. OSHA also developed a federal rule to protect workers from heat-related illnesses.

As this week’s historic heat continues, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas has said the state could break an all-time record for energy use Friday afternoon. ERCOT warned last month of potential outages last month as temperatures rose briefly. But the grid operator now says it will be able to keep up with the record-breaking demand after several plants came back online over the last few weeks.

Meanwhile, cities and counties across Texas are preparing for the intense heat.

The city of Houston said it will activate its public health emergency plan over the weekend. Beginning Saturday, people without access to air conditioning will be able to seek shelter at any of the city’s designated cooling centers located at all Houston Public Library locations and Parks and Recreation community centers.

Big Bend National Park along the Rio Grande topped out at 117 degrees Tuesday, tying the all-time high for that location. That high was just 3 degrees short of the hottest temperature ever recorded in Texas, last seen in 1994 in the small West Texas town of Monahans.

National Weather Service meteorologist Katheryn Lininger says it’s not unusual to see high pressure systems like this — but usually in August, not in early June.

“With that high pressure too, you just get warm, sinking air,” Lininger said. “It’s hard for any type of rain to develop over Texas, it’s hard for clouds to develop over southeast Texas, so you get the perfect set-up for just continuous hot.”

Jack Williams and Travis Bubenik contributed to this report.

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