Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition

RGJ: Legislature proposes excessive heat protections for workers

Extreme temperature significantly affects workforce health during sustained high temperatures, and worker exposure to excessive heat has only increased in the last decade.

Construction workers, car dealers, bakers, tire shop employees, delivery workers, trash collectors, and workers in dozens of other industries are at high risk of heat-related hazards in the state, according to the Nevada Department of Business and Industry. 

In 2020, employees filed 135 heat stress complaints in Nevada. By 2021, the number of complaints rose to 202 statewide, according to state data.

One of the biggest challenges facing workers is there are no federal standards to protect workers from heat-related hazards, even as heat waves become more intense and more frequent due to climate change.

And Nevada, like most states, doesn’t have an enforceable heat illness standard.

Lawmakers are now proposing a measure, sponsored by the Senate Committee on Government Affairs, that would create permanent standards to protect outdoor and indoor workers from heat-related illnesses and injuries, the Nevada Current reported.

Failing to confront the issue risks “repeating the same economic and social inequities our community has faced for decades,” said Las Vegas Assemblywoman Selena Torres, during a lobbying event organized by the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition. “It is time that in this session we confront those issues head on.”

Last summer, the Nevada Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) adopted a federal program meant to advise Nevada businesses on how to protect workers from heat illness and injuries.

Under the program, Nevada OSHA can initiate inspections for more than 70 high-risk industries when the National Weather Service issues a heat warning for the area. On days expected to exceed 90 degrees, OSHA can launch partial in-person inspections in response to heat-related complaints, regardless of industry.

But lawmakers say the program is not enough to protect workers from employers who fail to provide resources for managing heat illness, like shade, portable water, breaks and proper health monitoring.

The Outdoor Worker Protection draft bill being pushed by the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition would ensure employees working in extreme heat are given shade, water, education, and training to help prevent heat stress and illnesses related to poor air quality. The bill is still in draft form and not been introduced yet.

Working in triple-digit heat

Roberto Renteria, a construction worker in Las Vegas, spoke at the lobbying event about the intense heat he’s worked under for the last 20 years. He recalled working construction in temperatures as high as 115 degrees in order to meet construction deadlines. 

“It’s a kind of suffering you can’t imagine,” Renteria said outside the Nevada Legislature, in his native Spanish. “I’m begging you to do something about the environment.”

Outdoor employees have been asking for enforceable heat stress protections for years without result, said Gerardo Velasquez, a solar installation worker.

“Last year, I was working on installing solar panels outside Las Vegas in the middle of the summer and I got dehydrated,” Velasquez said, in his native Spanish. “We have to do something.”

From 2016 to 2021, at least seven worker fatalities have been linked to heat in Nevada. State officials say those numbers may be even higher since illnesses, injuries and fatalities from heat exposure are often underreported.

The Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition lobbied for other environmental-focused bills during the Monday event.

‘The Green Amendment’

Assemblywoman Sarah Peters called for the advancement of a constitutional amendment titled “The Green Amendment.” The amendment, AJR3, would ensure Nevadans rights to clean water, clean air, healthy ecosystems and a stable climate. Only three states in the U.S. provide such a protection in their state constitution, Pennsylvania, Montana, and New York.

“Over the last five years, it’s become very apparent that we’re in the middle of an environmental catastrophe,” Peters said. “You can see that in the four feet of snow around us, you can see that in wildfires that start all year, you can see it in the drought that we are still in, despite the four feet of water we’re standing next to.”

“It is imperative that we constitutionalize these protections so people who live in this state can live their best life… you can’t live your best when you have gut issues from ingesting copper,” Peters continued.

Peters argued that a constitutional amendment would allow people to raise a case against the state for making decisions that degrade the environment, especially people of color who are disproportionately affected by water contamination and climate change.

Several groups focused on environmental justice advocated for a bill that would require the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection to conduct a study to identify communities facing the greatest burdens of climate change, and how to mitigate those issues. The bill, AB71, had its first hearing with the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources on Monday.

“Instead of taking a shot in the dark at what the solution could be, the idea is to better understand the issues communities face and how certain interventions might have a bigger impact in some communities than others,” said Las Vegas Assemblyman Howard Watts, during the bill hearing. “I do what to make sure there are recommendations we can consider at the end of this, not just understanding.”