It’s 2:00 pm on a sunny Friday in Houston, Texas. The temperature is 102 degrees with humidity thick enough to make you question why you elected to spend your summer in the city. You stop at a light downtown and see 20 or more guys in long sleeve shirts working diligently on a construction project. You think to yourself, “My goodness, how can they work out in that heat all day?”
Well, a Texas Senate Panel is considering taking an action that it believes will make those jobs safer for workers. In an effort to prevent illness and deaths from the Texas heat, the panel considered Senate Bill 473 which proposes a requirement that construction companies to give workers mandatory rest breaks. The legislation would require 15-minute rest breaks for every four hours of work on construction sites.
Some cities in Texas have already implemented a similar policy on work sites. In Dallas, construction workers are entitled to a 10-minute break every four hours. Austin is another Texas city that requires breaks. There are also a handful of states that require breaks at construction sites.
There is a debate among builders and worker advocates regarding the bill. Builders argue that safety regulations regarding construction work sites should be left to OSHA. OSHA has safety guidelines that are recommended to builders. Builder advocates explain that failure to follow OSHA recommendations can result in fines and is typically strong evidence of negligence in workplace safety litigation which could result in big verdicts against companies. They believe that the threat of litigation and fines are strong enough incentives to push companies to provide a safe work site. They also believe that the bill could result in over-regulation because the federal government already regulates safety through OSHA and cities could pass similar legislation. Compliance with all three regulations could increase construction costs which would be passed down to the buyer.
Construction worker advocates point out that OSHA does not have a specific heat stress standard. OSHA relies on Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) (also known as the General Duty Clause) to require employers to provide a safe and healthy environment for all workers and recommends that employers, including roofing employers, implement policies to address working during hot weather conditions. OSHA uses a heat index to make suggestions to builders on what to do when the heat reaches certain temperatures. Proponents of the bill argue that companies are not required to follow OSHA’s suggestions and many do not.
Senate Bill 473 would do much more than suggest breaks. Breaks would be mandatory and failure to comply will afford workers a right to file a complaint through the Texas Workforce Commission. The complaints would be investigated and handled by the Commission. Then, the commission could potentially penalize companies through the same process it uses for wage disputes.
There are a number of questions regarding the way this bill would impact the industry. From a legal standpoint one can expect that if passed, the bill will have a significant impact on construction contracts. Specifically, delay and delay damages clauses could be affected. Project timelines could also be impacted.
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