Outdoor workers have little protection in a warming world

Jhe official start of summer, the June 21 solstice, is still weeks away, but in many parts of the northern hemisphere, unusually high temperatures are already giving a taste of what’s to come. US heat records were set from Texas to Massachusetts over the weekend, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicting warmer-than-usual June, July and August. While many of us may seek refuge from the heat by turning on the air conditioning or heading to the local community pool, outdoor workers – like farmhands, garbage collectors, construction workers and air conditioner mechanics – are likely to support the weight. These essential workers are among the least protected when it comes to workplace heat.

According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week, extreme heat events are associated with higher overall adult death rates in the United States. Outdoor workers are particularly at risk. Between 1992 and 2017, heat stress injuries killed 815 American workers and seriously injured more than 70,000, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Another study published last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that if fossil fuel emissions are not significantly reduced there will be “a staggering increase in dangerous working days” by 2050, in especially for outdoor workers, with a potential cumulative loss of $55.4 billion in income. annually. Yet standards for heat protection on construction sites in the United States are sketchy, outdated, and inadequate, if they even exist — and in most states, they don’t. But as climate change pushes temperatures even higher, making intense heat waves more likely, that could start to change.


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Only four states currently have heat standards for outdoor workplaces: California, Colorado (for agricultural workers only), Oregon and Washington. Last September, President Joe Biden announced a new initiative to address the impact of extreme heat on the American workforce and called on OSHA to establish new federal heat protection standards. which would apply to the approximately 32 million people who work outside. Although implementing new rules could take years, on May 3, OSHA held its first stakeholder meeting, inviting public comment. Workers said they passed out from the heat, weren’t allowed to take breaks, and didn’t have enough water. “I want important people to know that this is our reality,” commented one farm worker. “Our people are getting sick. We are thirsty. And no one seems to care.

The human body can only withstand a limited range of temperatures before it begins to break down. High heat triggers a series of emergency protocols in the body designed to protect vital functions while sacrificing everything else. First, blood flow to the skin increases, putting a strain on the heart. The brain orders the muscles to slow down, causing fatigue. Nerve cells misfire, leading to headaches and nausea, early signs of heat exhaustion. If core temperature continues to rise above 104-105°F (40-41°C), organs begin to shut down and cells deteriorate, leading to kidney failure, blood poisoning, and eventually death. . When heat is combined with humidity, which is likely to increase with climate change in many regions, the risk of overheating is even more pronounced as the body loses its ability to self-cool through sweating.

Preventing heat exhaustion, heat stress, and ultimately heat stroke, is relatively simple: rest, find shade, and hydrate. However, these remedies are not always easy to find or request on a job site, especially for workers from marginalized groups who fear putting their jobs or wages on the line. According to 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. When OSHA cites an employer for inadequate protection, it’s usually only after workers have been hospitalized or died from heat exposure.

The current patchwork of state-level rules not only leaves millions of American workers unprotected, but it also creates unnecessary confusion for employers working in multiple states, says Juanita Constible, the leading climate and health advocate at the New York-based environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council. Constible says OSHA must expand and enforce standards that include: whistleblower protection; an obligation for employers to provide workers with water, breaks and shade; establishing heat acclimatization plans for new and returning workers; organize heat stress prevention training for managers and employees; and establish a detailed plan to deal with heat and health emergencies.

Some industries oppose administration efforts to improve outdoor working conditions, arguing that setting national standards for locally defined heat hazards will be costly and impractical. But for Erick Bandala Gonzalez, environmental scientist at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, providing such protections to workers makes good sense: “Regulations on heat protection save money and lives”. Gonzales is the lead author of a new study published May 11 in the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology which examines the growing threat of extreme heat to the health of outdoor workers in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix, three of the hottest cities in North America. He found not only a strong correlation between high temperatures and heat-related illnesses, but also an increase in workplace injuries. “For outdoor workers, extreme heat is an extreme hazard,” Gonzalez says. But as long as temperatures continue to rise and outdoor work is necessary, “we have no choice but to create coping strategies. This means protecting workers and protecting them as soon as possible.

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