(The Hill) — In a summer filled with heat waves, fires, smoke and floods, workers face the brunt of climate-related catastrophes.
Many workers have worked inside or outside in scorching heat or while breathing in smoke, putting them as risk for illness or even death. Heat deaths have killed dozens of workers each year, a total of more than 400 between 2011 and 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And as climate change is expected to worsen, so too may these impacts.
While heat risk isn’t new, “it’s certainly getting worse with climate change and as temperature and other factors really have exacerbated the issue,” said Rebecca Reindel, director of occupational safety and health at the AFL-CIO, the largest federation labor unions.
For weeks, the southern and western U.S has sweltered under brutal heat from the combination of human-caused climate change and an unusually stable heat dome hovering above the Texas-Mexico borderlands.
Those conditions have pushed heat to “oppressive” levels for most of Texas, Nevada and California, where heat indexes — the measure of how hot it feels — hovered above 110 degrees.
Climate change alone made Texas’s current heatwave five times more likely, according to the nonprofit climate shift index.
Meanwhile, the world just experienced the hottest June ever recorded, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The month ended with a rapid succession of new heat records, starting with the highest average global temperatures ever recorded..
“This is further evidence of destabilization of the global climate system,” one meteorologist told the journal Nature.
The changing climate is leading to outcomes including heat, fire and floods.
Rising temps, rising climate risk
Higher temperatures are adding stress to people and the planet.
Every degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of heat exposure increases the rate of death from heart disease by about 3%, according to a study in Lancet Planetary Health.
Recent research suggests that the human heart rate begins to increase at somewhere between 104 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit under 25% humidity — even for those resting in the shade.
That is a sign that the body is experiencing stress from no longer being able to efficiently cool itself through sweat, study author Lewis Halsey told The Hill.
Halsey noted that these impacts would be far more dramatic for people who were actually exerting themselves under those conditions, like workers.
Many laborers who work outside face conditions where “if they don’t work, they don’t get paid,” he said. “So they are pretty much obligated to work outside of it.
These professions, he added, “are the ones that need protecting. That’s not a physiological statement, of course — it’s a social one. That’s where the risks lie.”
A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that construction workers made up 36% of occupational heat-related deaths between 1992 and 2016 despite making up 6% of the total workforce.
Some of the most at-risk occupations included cement masons and roofers, said the study by the Center for Construction Research and Training, a nonprofit that aims to reduce injuries and deaths in the industry.
Construction workers “do a lot of outdoor work, a lot of time-sensitive work,” said Chris Trahan Cain, executive director of the center.
She noted that for cement masons, “It’s more difficult to arrange rest breaks. You work when the concrete comes, and it’s often a very elevated pace for that time.”
Domingo Garcia, Texas-based president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) noted that in addition to construction workers, heat risk is also pronounced in agriculture, adding that both industries are “extremely dangerous in this type of heat”
As head of the U.S.’s biggest and oldest Latino civil rights group, Garcia emphasized the outsized risks that community faces from heat exposure.
Dehydration and heat stroke are common occurrences “that are often marginalized, unfortunately,” Garcia said.
“Partly because many of them are Latino workers, and some of them may be undocumented, the enforcement that should be there is not there,” he said.
The lack of state protections for workers laboring in the heat adds to the danger, Garcia added. While many bosses take care to give their workers access to water and rest breaks, he said, “ You have a lot of bad apples that don’t care about safety,” he said.
When Garcia was on the job site in the summer, his bosses would usually run the shift from before sunrise till early afternoon and avoid the hottest part of the day.
But other employees on those same sites — working for different subcontractors — kept sweating through until sundown, he said.
The risk of heat-related illness is particularly serious in Texas, which is the only state not to require businesses to provide workers’ compensation except to workers for companies contracted with the state government.
In other states, regulations are stricter. California requires employers to train workers in how to avoid heat illness and give access to water and shade.
Bad air: Smoke clogs workers’ lungs
Meanwhile, the East Coast of the U.S. was recently pummeled with a deluge of smoke from Canadian wildfires, turning the sky orange and opening up anyone working outdoors to respiratory hazards.
The climate change picture for the wildfires in Quebec is complex.
Robert Field, scientist with Columbia University, told The Hill last month that climate change will make the fire season hotter and longer, but may also make the East Coast wetter, mitigating some fire potential.
But the event marked a harbinger for the western half of the country, which climate change is expected to make drier as well as hotter.
Exposure to the smoky air may cause conditions ranging from shortness of breath to asthma attacks to heart attacks. Heat also increases the risk of death rom heart disease.
Barry Levy, a physician and adjunct professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, said that firefighters may face the greatest risk from wildfire smoke since they face the problem up close.
Levy, who is also the co-editor of the book “Climate Change and Public Health,” noted that the firefighters are “vulnerable to heat exhaustion, burns, smoke inhalation” and injuries.
He added that they may face multiple hazards, such as extreme heat and heavy smoke, and also need to wear respirators, which can place an additional burden on the heart an lungs.
Other outdoor workers also face risks.
“The wildfire smoke that’s affected the eastern half of the U.S. or more from Canada is a wake up call for a lot of the country, but it’s something that our folks on the west coast have been dealing with for quite some time,” Cain said.
Floods swamp worker health
Hazards for workers associated with floods include the potential for electrocution because of downed power lines, carbon monoxide poisoning from malfunctioning generators, falling trees and exposure to chemical and biological hazards.
While rescue and recovery workers often face the greatest risks, dangers also lurk for utility workers, Levy noted.
He said that the risks for rescue workers include drowning, as well as “being hit by objects that are caught up in the flood waters.”
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union’s website also highlights the risk of coming into contact with health hazards including “intestinal bacteria such as E. Coli, Salmonella, and Shigella, Hepatitis A Virus, and agents of typhoid, paratyphoid, and tetanus.”
Reindel, with the AFL-CIO, said that workers can come into contact with additional hazardous substances when they’re sent to clean up the aftermath of climate-related storms like hurricanes, which are expected to become more intense as the planet heats up.
“You might be dealing with buildings and houses that have a lot of asbestos in there, lead, some heavy metals and many other chemicals,” she said.
She said that workers who are cleaning up after a storm may only be provided limited protection, and that ultimately these situations leave “a lot of inequities for folks who need work and are untrained and are then opened up to dangerous working conditions.”
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