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As the World Warms: Part 1 Work in the Heat

CES Series on Climate Implications

We’ve driven our cars slowly past highway construction sites on hot summer days and felt sympathy for the workers bearing the sun’s heat near newly laid asphalt. Hot weather has always made such jobs disagreeable, but as the world warms the nature of outdoor labor will become worse than disagreeable. There are few regulations in the United States to protect workers from the consequences of high temperatures, either in outdoor or indoor settings. Employers are generally not required to provide water, shading, breaks, or work hours that would reduce the risks of exposure to oppressive heat. This first article in our series on the implications of a warming world is a short survey of current and future labor conditions. As heat becomes more intense, how will laborers fare? Will our work expectations of labor output need to change to accommodate unprecedented heat?

In the United States the increased risks of work in the heat are receiving some attention. A report issued by Public Citizen finds that heat is already the leading weather-related killer for workers. Between 1992 and 2016 there were 783 worker deaths and nearly 70,000 serious worker injuries attributed to excess heat. Heat-related illnesses range from rashes and cramps to heat stroke that damages the kidneys and brain. Death can result from extreme heat if steps aren’t taken to cool the body immediately. There is emerging evidence, too, that working outdoors in extreme temperatures can lead to chronic kidney disease (motherjones.com). A warming atmosphere also elevates the risk of heart and lung problems, including asthma attacks and chronic heart disease. And beyond the temperature itself, workers will be more exposed to allergens like pollen, waterborne pathogens, and cancer-causing UV rays. Some populations, such as pregnant women, will be especially sensitive to hot environments (thenation.com).

Worker health in rising temperatures is also receiving attention at the international level. A report presented at International Labour Organization (ILO) headquarters in Geneva in June 2016 states that more than one billion employees and their employers and communities in vulnerable countries are already grappling with severe heat in the workplace; and it called for the impact of climate change on labor to be more adequately accounted for by international and national climate or employment policies. The first line of the report states, “Emerging economies face as much as 10 per cent losses in working hours because of deteriorating thermal conditions in the workplace due to climate change” (thecvf.org).

Attention to the impact a warming world is having on workers, however, has been slow in coming. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has provided leadership in putting occupational health front and center in their models of human health impacts of climate change, US climate researchers and federal agencies have largely overlooked workers in their summary of the impacts of climate change on human health. Studies have failed to identify the disproportionate impact on many classifications of workers, particularly workers who are already economically marginalized. Agencies have properly paid attention to some populations, such as chronic disease sufferers, the elderly, and children, but repeatedly have failed to include workers in their lists (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). As a result, 130 million workers in the United States who make their living outside—from farmworkers to construction workers—lack heat stress protections. “A heat protection standard should include mandatory rest breaks, hydration, and access to cool spaces (shaded or air conditioned),” states a petition to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) submitted by more than 130 organizations in July of 2018. California, Minnesota, the state of Washington, and the US military are the only jurisdictions that have in place heat protections for workers (citizen.org).

Extreme temperatures will exacerbate the hazards of many jobs, including work at high elevations, work that is physically demanding, work with chemical exposures where warmer temperatures will result in toxicity at lower levels. During higher temperatures, personal protective equipment such as respirators and protective clothing will be increasingly intolerable. Until now, in addition, little attention has been paid to the hazards present in climate change mitigation employment, often labeled as “green jobs.” These include hazards associated with wind and solar installation and maintenance, chemical exposures in installing isocyanate spray foam insulation, and the numerous hazards present in biofuels agriculture (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).

Central America and the Caribbean, Northern South America, North and West Africa, South and South East Asia, and the Southern United States are the most vulnerable areas as warming increases, according to Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 48 nations disproportionately affected by the consequences of global warming (thecvf.org). And while higher-latitude locations will warm more than the tropics under global warming, researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa led by Camilo Mora analyzed hundreds of historic heat waves and found that a greater threat to life will be in the more humid, tropical locales. Dr. Mora said, “These areas require less warming to cross the deadly threshold.” In the deep tropics, such as in Jakarta, Indonesia, the entire year is pegged to be above the potentially deadly level (cnn.com). A Climate Vulnerable Forum study finds that even if the more stringent 1.5-degree Celsius temperature rise limit agreed to under the Paris Agreement is achieved, by 2030 key regions would face almost an entire month of added extreme heat each year (thecvf.org).

China’s most densely populated and most agriculturally prosperous region could see regular “unsurvivable” heat waves by the end of the century, according to a study published in the journal Naturein July 2018. By 2070, if emissions continue at current rates, heatwaves in the North China Plain region, which includes the capital Beijing, could kill people in hours. Many of the region’s 400 million inhabitants are agricultural workers, with few alternatives to working outside. “This spot is just going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future, especially under climate change,” commented the study’s leader, MIT’s Elfatih Eltahir (nature.com).

In India, 24 cities are expected to reach average summertime highs of 35C (95F) by 2050.[1]A recent analysis of climate trends in several of South Asia’s biggest cities found that if current warming trends continue, by the end of the century wet bulb globe temperatures[2]will be so high that people directly exposed for six hours or more will not survive (nytimes.com). In concern for people pedaling bicycle rickshaws, hauling goods on their heads, and constructing those towers of glass and steel rising all over India, that nation recently announced a series of common-sense public health interventions thathave led to an enormous reduction in heat-related deaths—from 2,040 in 2015 to just over 200 in 2017. Successful measures included unlocking the gates to public parks during the day, distributing free water, and painting the roofs white on buildings in slum communities (climatechangenews.com).

As with other environmental disasters, with rising temperatures it is the poor who suffer most. And the fact that people at the bottom of the economic ladder are often there because of other disadvantages—poor health, old age, immigration status—means these workers often lack access to health services as well as a political voice. Since farmworkers, for example, are often undocumented immigrants (the Department of Labor estimates 47 percent are in that category) fear of deportation can lead to a reluctance to report incidents or even seek medical attention (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). In the United States, immigrant workers are three times more likelyto die from heat exposure than American citizens (theguardian.com).

The poor here and elsewhere also suffer more because they are forced into the more dangerous jobs. The sugar cane fields of Central America serve as an example. At a time when the global sugar market is booming because of the demand for “climate-neutral” biofuels, more than 20,000 workers in the area’s sugar plantations have died from chronic kidney disease most likely caused by combined exposure to extreme temperature, pesticide exposures, a “piece work” payment system, and other employment conditions that prevent adequate hydration, rest, and protection from chemical exposures (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).

The combination of killing heat and desperate poverty describes the plight of brick workers in Cambodia, where luxury condos and high-rise office buildings are going up at record rates. Poor farmers are lured to the city to labor in brick factories. The work calls for kneading soil with water and clay, filling brick molds with soft paste, drying bricks in the sun, putting bricks into giant open-fire kilns, adding wood to the fires, removing the bricks from the kiln’s searing heat, and loading finished bricks onto trucks. The ILO classifies brick-making as extremely hazardous work; and legions of workers are trapped when they find their pay doesn’t cover expenses and they are forced to borrow from factory owners. This is illustrated by one family’s account: the woman said she lifts blocks off of a conveyor belt and loads them onto a cart which her husband or her 10-year-old daughter pull or push into the sun to dry. They are paid by the brick and working continuously the three can make up to 25,000 to 30,000 bricks a day. Cambodia’s brick-making industry relies upon a multi-generational workforce of adults and children trapped in the most prevalent form of modern-day slavery, namely, debt bondage. The ILO estimates 40 million people worldwide are enslaved by the practice (aljazeera.comand cnn.com).

Incidents illustrating more familiar heat hazards are faced by US workers and appear in the news on a regular basis. In 2011 an Amazon warehouse employee contacted OSHA to report that the heat index hit 102 degrees in the warehouse and 15 workers collapsed. Another complaint was that Amazon would not open garage doors to help air circulation. When OSHA began asking questions they heard that previously workers had to provide doctor’s notes saying they couldn’t work in excessive heat or else they would be given demerits that could result in termination. When heat is excessive, workers can now go home early without pay and it won’t jeopardize their jobs (chicagotribune.com).

An AT&T technician spoke with a Houston TV reporter anonymously to say AT&T wouldn’t let him turn on the air conditioning in his company truck. He mounted a thermometer in his company van to show how hot it got when the air conditioning was not on. Within 10 minutes the thermometer reached 120 degrees. AT&T said employees are allowed to idle with their air conditioning on if excessive heat becomes a health and safety issue, but an employee who was willing to be named in the station’s report disagreed. He said, “They’ll fire you.” Technicians spend most of their shifts outside or up in customer’s attics where in the summer it can reach 140 degrees. Their trucks are like their offices where they complete paperwork after a job and wait for their next assignments (click2houston.com).

After a US Postal Service worker began a second shift at 4:30 pm one summer day in Massachusetts in 2013, he collapsed on his mail route. Temperatures had soared into the mid-90s and high humidity made it feel more like 100 degrees. The worker had sent several text messages to his wife about the excessive heat, reportedly texting shortly before collapsing, “I’m going to die out here today. It’s so hot.” His temperature reportedly reached 110 degrees. He died the following day at the hospital (ehstoday.com).

The risks workers now face in heat will be compounded as the world warms, but those suffering from heat stress may struggle to prove the exact cause of their injury when seeking compensation. “Was it the heat, the ambient community air pollution, or the individual worker’s risk profile that caused the heart attack during hot weather?” The main funding available for dealing with work-related injuries needs to be overhauled to accommodate both acute and long-term health harms that climate change will inflict on workers during their work lives (thenation.com).

Progress in worker protection will be hard to achieve under the present US administration, in which every effort is being made to reduce regulation. Along with other climate realities, however, eventually the need will become undeniable. In the meantime advocates for climate justice have one more item to add to the list of concerns: how to make conditions for workers safer as temperatures rise.


[1]As ecozoans who are alert to climate change events, we need to learn to read temperatures in Centigrade! Take out your calculator to convert 35 Centigrade to a Fahrenheit reading. Multiply 35 by 9 then divide by 5, then add 32 to get the Fahrenheit equivalent.

[2]“Wet bulb globe temperature” estimates the effect on humans of temperature, humidity, wind speed, and visible and infrared radiation. It is often used by industrial hygienists, athletes, and the military to determine appropriate exposure levels to high temperatures (en.wikipedia.org). The formula and its application are explained in the vivid charts of “Linking Climate Parameters to Human Health and Workability in Kolkata” by Joyashree Roy (sdpi.org).