What Happens When It’s Too Hot To Work?
Environment Policy Policy Brief # 124 | By: Katelyn Lewis | August 20, 2021
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Photo taken from: The Guardian
Around 32 million people in the United States’ workforce are risking their health for their jobs on hot summer days – a scenario likely to increase dramatically by mid-century if there is slow or no action to reduce global emissions, a new analysis finds.
The Union of Concerned Scientists report found outdoor workers – including construction workers, farmhands, emergency responders, roofers, and landscapers – are likely to triple or quadruple their heat exposure by 2065, putting at risk $55 billion in income as the number of days with a heat index above 100*F are projected to increase.
“Outdoor workers have up to 35 times the risk of dying from heat exposure than does the regular population,” the report cites. “With climate change making days of extreme heat more frequent and more intense, the number of hours and days when outdoor work is unsafe will increase further unless employees and employers are willing and able to adapt to changing conditions.”
As it stands, less than 10% of outdoor workers lose work days to extreme temperatures. But the report projects that number could increase to as much as 60% of workers losing at least a week of work due to heat by 2050 if no action is taken to curb emissions. The fall-out from no action would cost an average outdoor worker about $1,700 each year, equating to about $55 billion lost annually for all outdoor workers.
“Even with adaptations to climate change, outdoor workers could be forced to choose between their health and a paycheck,” the report says.
The report artfully points out another aspect of climate change that will negatively alter our workforce and economy: extreme heat.
At least 384 U.S. workers died from environmental heat exposure in the last decade, according to an investigation by NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations. While that number may sound low, their examination of federal data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the three-year average worker heat deaths to have doubled since the early 1990s, and – with no federal heat standard set – it remains a growing statistic for an entirely preventable situation.
In March, congressional Democrats introduced a bill directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to provide standards related to extreme heat, such that employers would be required to provide adequate water, shade, and rest breaks for outdoor workers. No action has been taken on the bill in either the Senate or House of Representatives at the time of this new brief.
People at particular risk to the effects of extreme heat are outdoor workers as well as people who already have chronic illness, those who face health disparities, or those dealing with health inequities on a daily basis.
Photo taken from: Inova Children’s Hospital
Symptoms of heat stroke include extremely high temperature; red, hot, and dry skin; a rapid, strong heartbeat; and mental confusion and unconsciousness. Meanwhile, heat exhaustion can present itself in heavy sweating; cold, pale, and clammy skin; a fast, weak pulse; tiredness or weakness; muscle cramps; dizziness; headaches; fainting; and nausea or vomiting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ analysis points to a few assumptions and limitations in its calculations – such as whether the use of U.S. Census data may over- or underestimate migrant and undocumented workers in outdoor occupations, or if some outdoor work comes with a mixture of indoor tasks.
Still, the argument remains: With global warming, more days with higher temperatures pose higher risks for those who have outdoor jobs, which disproportionately affects Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino communities.
It presents a potential growth in workforce disparities as the world warms, for jobs indispensable to feeding, building, and serving our communities.
Article Resources & Additional Reading
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National Public Radio – Heat is Killing Workers In The U.S. – And There Are No Federal Rules to Protect Them (Aug. 17, 2021) –
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association – June 2021 was the 5th warmest June on record for the globe (July 13, 2021) –
PBS – Farmworkers are dying in extreme heat. Few standards exist to protect them. (Aug. 6, 2021) –
U.S. News & World Report – Beating the Heat, For Your Health (July 6, 2018) –