Activists pledge to continue pushing for heat illness rules after regulation, legislation falter
In May 2020, as temperatures began to creep up across the state, Nevada labor regulators started creating rules to protect employees who work in extreme heat. If temperatures reached a certain threshold, employers were required to have a program in place to provide accommodations, including potable water, rest breaks and shade or cooling.
An early draft of the rule set the threshold at 80 degrees Fahrenheit. After feedback from trade organizations, regulators raised the trigger to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. But, after many changes, the rule stalled at the Legislative Commission last year. It was never adopted and did not go into effect.
In the absence of any state-level regulation, labor advocates and environmental justice groups turned to the legislative process. Sen. Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) presented legislation this session, SB427, that would have codified similar rules into law.
The legislation set an initial threshold of 95 degrees Fahrenheit; it was amended to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet even that proposal received significant pushback.
And after a last-minute hearing May 19, lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Assembly shelved the measure, leaving the state with some of the fastest-warming cities with no heat rule for workers. Las Vegas typically averages more than 70 days a year when temperatures exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Although industry groups insisted that businesses self-regulate and take precautions to protect workers, labor activists said there is still a need to address “bad actors.”
“The discussions are still going to continue, even though the bill died in this legislative session,” said Cinthia Moore, who leads the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition. “A lot of times, we know that good pieces of legislation take more than one session to actually make it through.”
SB427 passed in the Senate on a party-line vote and advanced to the Assembly, where it stalled for weeks. The legislation was given a second hearing just hours before a deadline to advance it out of the Assembly Committee on Commerce and Labor, but not a vote.
In addition to creating rules around extreme heat, the bill would have required that employers provide accommodations, including masks, breaks and monitoring, when air pollution exceeds a certain threshold. This provision, Flores and other bill proponents said, was meant to address the risk of wildlife smoke to outdoor workers — a particularly resonant issue in Northern Nevada.
The hearing May 19 featured impassioned testimony from workers and union leaders, who noted that some standards outlined in the bill are included in collective bargaining agreements. The legislation, supporters said, was meant for workers who do not have leverage or protection to request water and breaks from “bad actors” who do not follow certain public health guidelines.
Trade associations and business groups argued that the concerns were overstated and a broad approach was not needed because most employers already provide protections for workers. In addition, they said some of the language was vague and would be onerous to implement across sectors that have different business models. The state, they noted, already has a process to file heat illness complaints.
“While these requirements may appear to be common sense, we do believe these regulations can be complicated, egregious, burdensome and confusing because each industry in Nevada and sector is different and they need to respond differently in order to comply and protect their workers,” said Paul Moradkhan, Vegas Chamber’s senior vice president of government affairs.
State labor regulators declined to comment on extreme heat rules. But in the past, the Nevada Occupational Health and Safety Administration has enforced compliance by turning to what is known as the “general duty clause,” a catch-all rule that requires business to provide a safe and healthy work environment. Last summer, the state emphasized heat as part of its inspections.
Only a few states, including California, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington, have adopted a heat illness labor rule. The federal government is working on a national heat standard, but labor activists said Nevada workers want protection now, as federal regulators have been slow to act.
Addressing extreme heat in the workplace — for both outdoor workers and indoor workers who are employed in areas that lack climate controls — has emerged as a top environmental justice issue for climate activists concerned about increasing summer temperatures. Last year, a report by the Desert Research Institute, Guinn Center and Nevada State College found a link between increasing temperatures and work-related heat illness in three cities, including Las Vegas.
Much of the state is expected to experience 30 or more days exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the daytime, according to climate science cited in the 2020 Nevada Climate Strategy.
“We have to do something,” Moore said. “Extreme heat in Vegas is getting a lot worse.”