The Pump Handle is on a holiday break. The following, which was originally published on May 23, is one of our favorite posts from 2016.
by Kim Krisberg
Last summer, 25-year-old Roendy Granillo died of heat stroke while he installed flooring in a house in Melissa, Texas, just north of Dallas. His tragic and entirely preventable death marked a turning point in advocacy efforts to pass a rest break ordinance for local construction workers.
About five months after Granillo’s death, the Dallas City Council voted 10-5 to approve such an ordinance, which requires that construction workers be given a 10-minute rest break for every four hours of work. On its face, it seems like an incredibly simple and logical request, especially considering the extreme heat of Texas summers. However, it took advocates and supporters nearly two years to secure this basic worker safety protection. Among those many supporters were Granillo’s parents, who joined the rest break campaign and called on local legislators to protect other construction workers from the circumstances that took their young son.
“On the day of the vote, it really was amazing,” said Diana Ramirez, campaign organizer at the Dallas office of Workers Defense Project (WDP), which led the rest break campaign. “Roendy’s parents were there, our members were there…the whole room started clapping. It was a long fight and people were tired, but it re-energized everyone to know that if we keep working hard, things will get better. Now, (workers in Dallas) feel like they have a voice.”
‘It was so basic, we thought surely they’d go along with it’
The roots of the Dallas rest break effort began with stories from workers, Ramirez said. Every Tuesday night, WDP hosts a gathering of its members and workers from the community, who come together to share stories, learn about their labor rights, and organize for better working conditions. It was during these meetings that the lack of rest breaks among construction workers became distressingly clear. For example, Ramirez said she and fellow WDP staff would often ask “extremely tired” construction workers how many breaks they had taken or if their employers had provided enough water breaks on a scorching hot day.
“They would look at us like we were crazy and say ‘of course not,’” she told me. “Employers would say ‘you’re not here to rest, you’re here to work.’ Even on the hottest day of the year.”
Based on such feedback from workers, the WDP Dallas office, which had opened in 2012 and was still fairly new at the time, decided to push for a rest break ordinance similar to one that passed in Austin in 2010. Ramirez said she and colleagues thought it would be a relatively easy sell — maybe it would take a few months at the most. Instead, workers and advocates spent the next two years in an uphill battle against industry for a simple, low-cost accommodation that could literally save a worker’s life.
“We were extremely surprised,” Ramirez said. “We had members come and give testimony, we had members meet with council members…and it was just heartbreaking to see that their point wasn’t getting across. Industry saw this rest break (campaign) as a threat — as a group of workers speaking up and demanding something.”
The data, however, show that construction workers in Texas have every right to be concerned. According to a 2013 WDP report conducted with the University of Texas-Austin and that surveyed nearly 1,200 construction workers in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio, 39 percent of workers said they do not receive rest breaks during the day besides a break for lunch. In addition, while federal OSHA law requires that employers provide drinking water for workers, 59 percent of workers surveyed said their employers did not do so. And 15 percent of construction workers said they had seen a co-worker faint due to heat exhaustion. Texas law doesn’t require employers to give construction workers rest breaks — in fact, it doesn’t even mandate meal breaks. Overall, Texas remains the most dangerous state to be a construction worker.
When it comes to heat, the latest heat illness surveillance report from Dallas Health and Human Services shows that the majority of heat illness reports among people ages 18 to 50 are related to outdoor work. Between July 2015 and mid-September 2015, the health department documented 164 cases of heat exhaustion, 31 cases of heat stroke and two heat-related fatalities. (It’s very likely that many heat-related illnesses that happen on the job go unreported. For example, OSHA only receives reports on those heat-related illnesses that were severe enough to require hospitalization.) On July 19, 2015, the day Granillo died, the Dallas heat rose to 99 degrees.
“It was so basic, we thought surely they’d go along with it,” said Bethany Boggess, research coordinator at WDP, of the Dallas City Council. “But there was really strong opposition.”
WDP first proposed the Dallas rest break ordinance in June 2014, and the Dallas City Council held its first briefing on the ordinance a few months later in September. Both Boggess and Ramirez relayed to me a litany of opposing arguments that came up during the process, such as arguing that it doesn’t get that hot in Dallas, or that regulating rest breaks was OSHA’s responsibility, or that there weren’t enough heat-related deaths to warrant such action. In one instance, according to both Ramirez and Boggess, a council member wondered aloud why Latino construction workers would need a rest break at all after having traveled through the desert just to get to the United States.
“Some of the comments were just racist,” Ramirez said. “We were a bit prepared to hear something like that in a one-on-one meeting, but it definitely surprised me to hear this said at a public hearing.”
At one point, Boggess said, policy-makers offered up an alternative ordinance that focused entirely on educating construction workers about heat stress without actually mandating a rest break. But OSHA already educates workers about heat hazards, she said, and that clearly isn’t enough to properly protect workers. WDP rejected the alternative and continued pushing for an ordinance with some teeth.
Then, on July 19, 2015, Roendy Granillo died on the job.
‘This is the worst that can happen’
On a blazing Texas day, Granillo was installing flooring in an unventilated house in Melissa, Texas, about 40 miles outside of Dallas. Ramirez, who has spoken with Granillo’s parents, told me that Granillo often worked 12- to 14-hour days. His mom would pack him a lunch; but on many occasions, he’d return at the end of the day without having had the chance to take a single bite. On the day he died, he told his employer he wasn’t feeling well and he needed to rest. His employer ignored his requests and told him to get back to work. At about 4 p.m., Granillo passed out.
He was taken to a local hospital, where he died at age 25 of heat stroke. According to Ramirez, his body temperature reached 110 degrees — “I can only imagine how he must have felt when he asked for help,” she said. Ramirez said what struck her most was that Granillo’s stomach was empty when he died. He hadn’t even been given time to eat.
“This is the worst that can happen,” Ramirez said. “But we hear stories all the time from workers about getting dizzy (from the heat) and feeling like they’re going to throw up.”
Mario Alberto Ontiveros has been a member and volunteer with WDP for more than three years and a construction worker for 16 years. Through a translator, he told me how easy it is to get dehydrated while working on a construction site on a hot day. In fact, Ontiveros said he believes many fall-related injuries and deaths are associated with heat, too — in other words, roofers and bricklayers get dizzy from the extreme heat and dehydration, lose their balance and fall. He said he’s seen first-hand how dangerous conditions can become when workers don’t get enough rest while working in the unrelenting heat.
Fortunately, Ontiveros said he typically works for companies that do provide rest and meal breaks. But he said working with contractors has been another story. For example, about six years ago, he was working for a contractor painting a stadium near Dallas. He took a lunch break at noon, and then continued painting without a break until 5 p.m. in temperatures above 100 degrees. The next day, he couldn’t move his arm and was eventually diagnosed with tendonitis. The injury left him unable to work for weeks.
“Every time there’s a new ordinance or law that would help workers…the industry doesn’t want it,” Ontiveros told me. “They’re only worried about the money, not about the worker. They would always say it would cost a lot of money, but what about the families who suffer when there’s accidents?”
In the weeks following Granillo’s death, WDP held a candlelight vigil for the 25-year-old worker outside Dallas City Hall. Both Boggess and Ramirez said the preventable tragedy was a turning point for the rest break campaign. In addition to hearing directly from Granillo’s family, Dallas City Council members also heard via letter from a local emergency room doctor, John Corker, who wrote:
While many construction workers are able to take breaks and drink water throughout the day, others are employed by less scrupulous employers who have little regard for the health and safety of their employees. Roendy Granillo was one such employee, toiling for 14 hours per day without breaks of any kind in Dallas suburbs. The 25-year-old repeatedly asked his employer to be taken to the hospital because he felt ill but was repeatedly denied medical care. It was not until Mr. Granillo collapsed on the construction site this past July that he was finally given any medical care, but by then it was too late. His body temperature had risen to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to multiorgan system failure which occurs in severe cases of heat stroke. As a last noble act, Mr. Granillo wished to be an organ donor, but unfortunately only his skin and bones could be harvested for transplant because the rest of his organs had been destroyed by the prolonged exposure to heat.
On Dec. 9, 2015, the Dallas City Council voted 10-5 in favor of the rest break ordinance, becoming only the second Texas city, in addition to Austin, to adopt such protections for construction workers. (Boggess noted that the vote was pretty evenly split among those who received campaign funding from the construction and real estate industry and those who didn’t.) The ordinance, which covers only construction workers and went into effect in January, requires a minimum 10-minute rest break for every four hours of work. The Dallas ordinance is expected to cover about 120,000 workers.
According to the ordinance, every construction site must now post signs in English and Spanish that inform workers of their right to a rest break and tells workers how to report a violation. Unlike the Austin ordinance, Dallas construction sites won’t be subject to random inspections related to rest breaks; however, Dallas building code inspectors do have authority to enforce rest break signage during their regular inspections. Dallas construction workers can also call 311 to log rest break complaints and violations, though Boggess said the investigative process that will follow is still being worked out.
Boggess said WDP is currently working on the best ways to enforce the ordinance as well as on ways to raise awareness of the new protection among Dallas construction workers.
“After this victory, people realize we’re here and we’re not going anywhere,” Ramirez said. “We’re going to keep fighting for workers.”
For Ontiveros and his wife Lourdes, who had testified for her husband before the City Council while he was at work, the winning vote was just the beginning. Now, they both said, successful implementation will be key.
“For me, I had a lot of joy in knowing we had passed this ordinance to help so many construction workers,” Lourdes said. “It was very gratifying…but I also know that the implementation needs to work for this to be a real victory — that this is not the end, but a stepping stone to something bigger.”
Her husband added: “On my way to City Hall to celebrate with everyone, I just kept thinking about Roendy and all those deaths and injuries that would have been prevented with this ordinance. …We always need more people that support and fight to better their own lives and their own conditions at work. We want a safe and healthy city in all aspects of the word.”
To learn more about worker safety efforts in Dallas and Austin, visit the Workers Defense Project.
(A special thank you to Diana Ramirez for providing translation during interviews for this story.)
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.