After labor rule stalled, activists turn to Legislature to protect workers from extreme heat

20 April 2023

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For two decades, Roberto Renteria has worked in extremely hot conditions. Testifying before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee last week, Renteria — a member of progressive nonprofit Make the Road Nevada — described conditions where he has worked in areas hotter than 120 degrees Fahrenheit and cases where he felt “exhausted,” “trapped” and “nauseated.”

Renteria left committee lawmakers, weighing legislation that aims to create workplace standards for heat, with a request: “I would like you to spend a few hours in my shoes outside in extreme weather, and feeling your shoes melt from extreme temperatures in Las Vegas, Nevada.”

SB427, sponsored by Sen. Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas), proposes baseline rules for businesses whose workers are affected by extreme heat conditions and poor outdoor air quality, an issue of growing concern as summers continue to warm and increasingly extreme wildfires release dense smoke.

When heat waves hit, outdoor and indoor workers — including those employed in warehouses — can face extreme temperatures, especially when working with materials or in industrial areas that absorb heat. Exposure to high temperatures can lead to heat illness and, in serious cases, fatalities on the job. Although employers have a “general duty” to provide a safe environment for their employees, the state lacks specific regulations addressing extreme heat in the workplace. 

As currently proposed, SB427 would set 105 degrees Fahrenheit as a minimum baseline for when employers must provide potable drinking water, access to shade and hydration breaks. Employers also would be required to have systems that monitor and respond to heat illness. 

“We’re just basically fighting for the bare bones of human rights at work,” said Vince Saavedra, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building Trades Union, which testified in favor of the legislation. “I have confidence that these legislators will do the right thing.”

Similarly, the legislation sets a minimum baseline for when employers must address poor air quality by providing respiratory protection equipment, access to water and adequate ventilation at indoor workplaces. Those rules would go into effect when the federal Air Quality Index exceeds 201, at which point the Environmental Protection Agency considers air quality to be “very unhealthy.”

In an interview, Flores noted that these are already best practices for many employers, but still said that some workers, from gardeners to HVAC employees, fall through the cracks. The bill is meant to target what Flores described as a “host of scenarios where we’re not ensuring that everybody has the accessibility to what to me sounds like common sense protections.” 

California, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington have passed heat-related rules.

Several business trade groups, including the Associated Builders and Contractors, the Vegas Chamber, the Nevada Trucking Association, the Nevada Resort Association, the Henderson Chamber of Commerce and the Nevada Homebuilders Association, testified against the bill.

Opponents argued that most companies and contractors already follow industry guidelines to provide water, shade and personal protective equipment, in addition to safety briefings at the start of work. They said the legislation also included broad language and took a one-size-fits-all approach to a complex issue that manifests itself in different ways, depending on the industry. 

“There are all of these different scenarios that I’m not sure are contemplated” under the bill, said Paul Enos, CEO of the Nevada Trucking Association, noting that his members’ activities range significantly, from parcel delivery to long-hauling freight across different states and climates. 

Enos, along with several other lobbyists, backed a heat awareness campaign.

Southern Nevada Building Trades Union leader Vince Saavedra, left, Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition coordinator Cinthia Moore and Sen. Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) testify on a bill to address extreme heat in the workplace on April 10, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The proposal builds off of recent efforts to pass a regulation addressing extreme heat in the workplace. The regulation, however, received pushback from business groups, and it was deferred from a vote at the Legislative Commission, a panel of lawmakers who review and vote on regulations. 

State labor regulators ultimately implemented a heat emphasis program that placed an internal agency focus on proactive measures to address heat in the workplace, but the program lacked  the teeth that statutory requirements might have. Supporters hope SB427 helps provide that. 

An original version of the legislation set the threshold for heat mitigation at 95 degrees, above the 90 degree baseline outlined in the heat emphasis program. After talking with business and labor groups opposed to the bill, the benchmark for heat mitigation was raised to 105 degrees.

Flores noted that 95 degrees was well above where other states have set threshold — which are closer to 80 or 90 degrees — but he said a working group of supporters and opponents agreed on the higher standard as a compromise, an effort to show “good faith” to industries opposing the rule.

“We’ve made a significant amount of amendments already,” Flores said in an interview after the committee hearing. “And that’s us showing good faith without damaging the integrity of the bill.”

Flores’ goal was to not single out an industry and “to keep it broad enough to where we give the employer the flexibility to meet the needs of this bill in a plan that makes sense for them.”

The committee voted last week to move the legislation forward. Three Republican senators — Carrie Buck (R-Henderson), Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) and Jeff Stone (R-Henderson) — voted against the measure, which now heads to the Senate floor for a vote. 

Before the vote, Buck argued that state regulators already had the ability to oversee heat illness through existing general obligations to ensure that employers are providing a safe workplace. 

“Placing the requirements in statute is unnecessary, and the bill is too broad, and it doesn’t take into consideration all the various industry differences,” she said. “Common sense for bad actors should not be legislated. Bring water to work, which is what the rest of the world does.”

Between 2016 and 2021, state officials received an annual average of 133 heat stress complaints, or more than one complaint for every three days of the year. Activists, such as Cinthia Moore with the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition and a supporter of SB427, said that legislators should prepare now for increased heat-illness issues as temperatures continue to warm into the future. 

Last year, the Desert Research Institute, Nevada State College and the Guinn Center published a study that found a link between increasing heat and nonfatal occupational injuries. Supporters of the legislation said that proactively addressing heat illness can prevent workers from having to take sick days or missing jobs, something that could benefit both employees and employers.

Moore said the bill would help employees do their work safely: “No one wants to miss work because that’s how they put food on the table and a roof over their head for their families.”

Section of the Colorado River near Willow Beach, approximately 20 miles south of the Hoover Dam, on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Ronda Churchill/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

KNPR’s Paul Boger interviewed Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) about four water bills that are moving through the Legislature. An especially important piece of legislation to watch is a proposal, SB176, that would provide a way for the state to retire water rights in parts of Nevada where state officials issued more entitlements to use water than there is water to go around.

Bookend proposals for the Colorado River: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released the draft of a much-awaited document last week outlining two approaches for short-term cuts on the Colorado River, where Las Vegas gets about 90 percent of its drinking water supply. 

Exactly how did the Colorado River get here? If you are one of the many people who depend on the Colorado River and are asking that question, there is a new podcast for you. KUNC’s Luke Runyon looks at overuse on the Colorado River in a new series.

The Associated PressScott Sonner looks at how a 9th Circuit ruling involving the 1872 Mining Law is being applied in Nevada’s courts and to federal officials who permit mines.

My colleagues Sean Golonka and Jacob Solis break down how the Nevada mining industry allocated campaign contributions to state legislators.

During a trip to Las Vegas, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland celebrated the recent designation of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, the Las Vegas Sun’s Hillary Davis reported.

Washoe County overturns a geothermal permit for the Black Rock Desert, the AP reported.

The post After labor rule stalled, activists turn to Legislature to protect workers from extreme heat appeared first on The Nevada Independent.

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