Julie St. John
Texas Employment Lawyer Julie St. John

First and foremost, climate change is real. Temperatures are more extreme and extreme weather events are more common. As a result, workers who work outside are at a greater risk of illness, injury, and even death from heat exposure than ever before. Still, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has failed to adopt a national heat standard to protect workers from heat exposure. Now is the time for OSHA to act. 

OSHA has guidance available to employers on precautions that should be taken to protect workers from excessive heat.1 However, it is only guidance, not law. Such guidance does not set specific requirements for what employers must do to keep outside workers safe from the heat. It only provides recommendations, which employers may obviously choose to ignore. OSHA should do more to protect outside workers. It should enact specific regulations that it can enforce to keep workers safe. 

As OSHA has yet to adopt a national heat standard or pass specific heat-related regulations for the workplace, workers must rely on the “General Duty Clause” of the OSH Act to fight for protections against unsafe working conditions based on excessive heat. The “General Duty Clause” requires employers to provide employees with a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1). Clearly, excessive heat should qualify as such a recognized hazard from which workers are entitled to protection.  

Importantly, workers who complain about an unsafe work environment due to heat should also be entitled to protection from retaliation for making complaints about heat-related safety issues. For example, if an outside worker were to complain about not being able to take breaks or an employer’s failure to provide drinking water, that worker should be protected from retaliation for complaining about an unsafe work environment. But protection for making such complaints would be more secure if the employer was subject to specific regulations as opposed to only the “General Duty Clause.” 

In addition to enacting a national heat standard and passing regulations that would set specific, enforceable requirements for what employers must do to protect outdoor workers from heat, taking action to help curb climate change is a second necessary component to the equation. Last month, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report titled “Too Hot to Work” which analyzed and discussed how climate change is affecting outdoor workers, who are disproportionately Black and Latino workers.2  

“Our analysis finds that by midcentury, given slow or no action to reduce global heat-trapping emissions, the increased intensity, frequency, and geographic extent of extreme heat would cause a three- to fourfold increase in the exposure of outdoor workers to days with a heat index—or ‘feels like’ temperature—above 100°F, the point at which the CDC recommends that work hours begin to be reduced.”

It is entirely unacceptable to do nothing in the face of such findings. Moreover, according to a joint investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations, National Public Radio, and The Texas Newsroom, from 2010 to 2021, 53 workers died in Texas alone because of working in excessive heat.3 Clearly, OSHA guidance is not enough to keep outdoor workers safe – specific regulations are necessary. 

If your employer is making you work in excessive heat without proper protections, you should consult with an employment attorney right away. Also, if your employer has retaliated against you for complaining about an unsafe work environment, you should not delay in seeking legal advice. The deadline to file a workplace safety retaliation complaint is very short, most often only 30 days from when the retaliation took place. 

 1) https://www.osha.gov/heat/heat-index

 2) https://ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2021-08/Too%20Hot%20to%20Work_8-13.pdf

 3) https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/in-depth/2021/09/07/407895/texas-workers-are-dying-in-the-summer-heat-and-companies-arent-being-held-accountable/

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Photo of Julie St. John Julie St. John

We asked Julie L. St. John, an experienced Trial Attorney in the Houston office of Wiley Wheeler, P.C., to impart her candid answers to a range of questions. After reading, you will be more more informed on the well-respected reputation that Ms.

We asked Julie L. St. John, an experienced Trial Attorney in the Houston office of Wiley Wheeler, P.C., to impart her candid answers to a range of questions. After reading, you will be more more informed on the well-respected reputation that Ms. St. John carries.

1. Why did you start practicing labor and employment law?

Because I care about the rights of employees and believe all workers should be treated fairly. 

2. If you could write a new law, what would it do?

Guarantee a living wage for all workers.

 3. Besides Rob Wiley, P.C., what is the most interesting job that you have had?

I worked as the beer cart girl at a golf course in college. 

4. What’s the best part of living in Houston?

Houston is clearly the best city in Texas, way better than Austin or Dallas. The people are wonderful, and the food is delicious. The only downside is the traffic, which is why I refuse to go outside of the loop (with a key exception for Ikea).

 5. If you were not practicing labor and employment law what would you be?

I would start a gardening/landscaping company with animals that do the work. The goats would eat the weeds, the pigs would till the ground, and the chickens would keep the bugs away.

6. Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

To have another tool to use to fight for things I believe in. I’ve always wanted to change the world.

7. What do you do when you’re not practicing law?

Travel, watch Ohio State football, and work to make my cat instafamous.

8. What’s your favorite legal movie

The Pelican Brief because it features Tulane Law!

9. Have you ever learned something from one of your clients?

I learn something from almost all of my clients. Most importantly, courage.

10. Who do you most admire as a lawyer?

Kalandra Wheeler

Julie L. St. John is a Trial Attorney in the Houston office of Wiley Wheeler, P.C. She graduated from Ohio State University with her bachelor’s degree in 2007. Ms. St. John then graduated from Tulane University School of Law in 2017.