Outdoor Workers Have Little Protection In A Warming World

The official start of summer—the June 21 solstice—is still weeks away, yet for many parts of the northern hemisphere unusually high temperatures are already providing a taste of what’s to come. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that the United States would experience a scorcher in June, July and august. While many of us can seek refuge from the heat by turning on the AC or going to the local community pool, outdoor workers—like farm laborers, garbage collectors, construction workers, and air conditioner mechanics—are likely to bear the brunt. When it comes to heat at work, these essential workers are the ones who have the most protection.

A new study, published in The, has found that the average age of a person who is not married to their partner was 58. Journal of the American Medical AssociationLast week extreme heat events had a higher death rate for adults in America than normal. Particularly at risk are outdoor workers. According to OSHA, heat stress injuries caused by heat have killed 815 U.S. workers and injured over 70,000. Another study published last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that if fossil fuel emissions are not significantly reduced, there will be “staggering increases in unsafe workdays” by 2050, particularly for outdoor workers, with a potential cumulative loss of $55.4 billion in earnings annually. Yet heat protection standards at worksites in the U.S. are piecemeal, outdated, and inadequate, if they exist at all—and in most states, they don’t. However, as temperatures rise and more intense heat waves are likely due to climate change, this may change.

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California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington are the only states with outdoor heat standards for workplaces. The President Joe Biden, in September 2011, announced an initiative to combat the extreme heat impact on American labor. OSHA was asked to establish new federal heat protection standards for the 32 million Americans who are outdoors. OSHA’s first stakeholder meeting was held on May 3. OSHA invited the public to participate in this discussion. It could take several years to implement new rules. Many workers shared their stories about being unable to drink enough water, heatstroke, or not having breaks. “I want important people to know that this is our reality,” one farmworker commented. “Our people are getting sick. It is getting worse. And no one seems to care.”

Human bodies can only tolerate a certain temperature range before they begin to fail. A series of emergencies in the body are triggered by high heat. These emergency protocols protect vital functions and sacrifice everything else. The first is an increase in blood flow to the skin, which puts strain on the heart. Fatigue can be caused when the brain signals muscles to slow down. Nerve cells misfire, leading to headache and nausea—the first signs of heat exhaustion. If the core temperature continues to rise past 104-105°F (40-41°C), organs start shutting down and cells deteriorate, leading to kidney failure, blood poisoning, and ultimately death. Heat is often combined with humidity which will increase with climate change. The potential for overheating increases as perspiration loses its cooling ability.

It is easy to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stress. These remedies are however not always easily found or requested at work, especially for those from marginalized communities who may be afraid of losing their job or earning a paycheck. Per OSHA’s general duty clause, employers are supposed to ensure that workers are safe from “recognized hazards,” but the rule is neither heat specific nor regularly enforced. OSHA will usually not cite employers for insufficient protection unless workers are hospitalized and have died as a result of heat exposure.

Juanita Constible is the Senior Advocate for Climate and Health at Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group. She says that the current patchwork of state-level regulations leaves millions of U.S. employees unprotected. It also causes confusion for employers who work across several states. Constible believes OSHA must expand its whistleblower protections and require employers to offer water breaks and shade to workers. They also need to establish heat acclimatization programs for returning and new workers. She recommends that managers and employees receive heat stress prevention training.

Some industries are pushing back against the administration’s efforts to improve outdoor work conditions, arguing that establishing nationwide standards for locally defined heat hazards will be costly and impractical. But to Erick Bandala Gonzalez, an environmental scientist at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, providing those kinds of worker protections is just common sense: “Heat protection regulations save money and lives.” Gonzales is the lead author on a new study published on May 11 in the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology that looks at the growing threat of extreme heat on outdoor workforce health in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix— three of the hottest cities in North America. His findings showed a strong link between heat illness and high temperatures, as well as an increase in workplace injury. “For outdoor workers, extreme heat poses extreme danger,” says Gonzalez. But as long as temperatures keep rising, and outdoor labor is necessary, “we have no choice but to create some adaptation strategies. That means protecting the workers and protecting them as soon as possible.”

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