Summer is approaching fast – and with it, the increased risk of heat injuries and fatalities.
That’s especially true for workers in Texas – where few regulations exist to protect laborers when the mercury soars. Many of Texas’ booming industries require physical labor outside in the elements – like construction and energy production – exposing workers to heat illnesses.
And, according to reporting from the Texas Observer, when heat deaths occur, they aren’t always properly reported to authorities.
Gus Bova, senior staff writer for the Texas Observer, spoke with the Standard about his reporting. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Your latest story focuses on 57-year-old and Antelmo Ramirez, who died on the job while constructing the Tesla Gigafactory near Austin. What’s known about what happened to Ramirez and when did this particular incident that you’re covering happen?
Gus Bova: It was September 2021. It was a 96 degree day, and it was during the afternoon he was working on a concrete pour and begins to exhibit sort of classic signs that your temperature has risen too high and you may be approaching heatstroke. He is fairly quickly brought to a Tesla medical trailer where he gets CPR and everything, but it was already too late. And that’s sort of the frightening thing about heatstroke, is your temperature can get completely out of control in just minutes.
Tell me a little bit about what the standards are for dealing with workers in the heat. I mean, what does the state say about that?
There is generally a lack of specifics. In Texas, state law does not require rest breaks. Federal law actually does not require rest breaks, either. Federal law only broadly requires that employers provide a workplace free of “recognized hazards” – that’s sort of the term of art. In some cases, the government’s able to argue that heat is a recognized hazard and cite an employer who puts employees at risk, as they did in this case. But those cases are often caught up in all kinds of legal trouble because the rules are actually not very clear.
You’re saying that officials did say that Tesla had a duty here, that this was an unsafe working condition?
The Tesla contractor that was the direct employer of Antelmo Ramirez, yes, was fined about $15,000 for exposing workers to the recognized hazards of direct sun for a prolonged period of time.
Who had the responsibility to report this? Was it Tesla or was it the contractor that Ramirez worked for?
So the reporting issue in this story is a little unique because when Tesla came to the Austin area with its Gigafactory and headquarters back in 2020, they sought tax incentives from both the Del Valle ISD and Travis County. During the Travis County process, there was a fair amount of pushback from local labor advocates, local progressive advocates about the deal. And sort of in response to that, Travis County included a number of requirements, along with their $14 million tax deal. And one of the requirements was that Tesla would report any injuries or deaths that occurred during construction of the site. In the report for that year, Antelmo Ramirez, who died, is absent from the Tesla report, as are other injuries that I was able to uncover by combing through basically a huge federal data file.
So you’re saying that this isn’t an isolated incident and that Tesla contractually had a duty to report these deaths, but did not.
To be completely precise, the agreement says they must report any injuries and deaths that occurred during construction. I found all these missing injuries and death. I told the county. The county has since asked Tesla to go back and provide the missing information, but it will be up to the county to decide whether that is deemed an actual breach of the agreement.
How does Texas compare with other states when it comes to worker heat-related deaths? And obviously the heat in Texas must contribute to a high number of these fatalities.
In general, Texas has the most worker deaths of any state, including California. A lot of workers die in Texas. The figures I polled for 2021, a worker died in Texas every 16 and a half hours and a construction laborer died every three days.
So what has Tesla and the contractor that Ramirez worked for had to say about safety in general and their reporting practices?
The contractor would not speak to me because there is an ongoing lawsuit against the company. in this case. Tesla did not respond to numerous emails or calls to many different senior employees and board members. In fact, Tesla abolished their PR department altogether a few years ago, so that may or may not be related.