From Laredo, Texas to London, heatwaves have broken records this month. While some people can cool off with air conditioning and other reliefs, many face dangerously hot working conditions.
Few regulations exist in the United States to protect workers from increasingly common extreme heat. As a result, the types of jobs prone to heat effects in the workplace are likely to increase.
“This is a health equity issue at its core,” said Michele Barry, MD, senior associate dean of global health at Stanford and director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health. “These conditions exacerbate existing inequalities … lower-income populations and especially outdoor workers have little escape and are at the mercy of temperatures where even moderate physical exertion can be fatal.”
Barry leads the Center for Innovation in Global Health’s efforts to address climate change as a global health crisis, including as an advisor to two presidential transition teams.
Rob Jordan, associate editor at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, discussed with Barry the impact of extreme heat on workplace risks and marginalized communities.
This Q&A is adapted from the original version.
What are the most pressing risks of extreme heat in the workplace, and how have they changed in recent decades or years?
There is an increased risk of heat stroke as core temperatures rise, something we saw during the devastating heatwaves in India and Pakistan last spring. When heat combines with humidity, it can create deadly temperatures above which the body can regulate itself. On the mental health side, we’re seeing an increased suicide risk among farmers in India and the American West, driven by desperation over heat and drought-induced crop failure.
What fairness and equity factors are involved in this issue?
People who have low-paying jobs that are outdoors and subject to the weather often cannot tolerate many days without pay. People can therefore continue to work, even if it is not a healthy choice. Many of these people also do not have access to the same health care resources as higher-income populations, which is especially unfair given the disproportionate impact of climate change on their health. Socio-economically disadvantaged areas are often the most affected and the affected people often lack the platform or resources to stand up for themselves.
What else is important to know about extreme heat risks for workers?
People may be surprised to know the disproportionate impact on the elderly. Aging outdoor workers may be forced to choose between early retirement or risking their lives in extreme weather conditions. Older people may also take medications that prevent sweating, making them less able to cool themselves and making them more susceptible to heat-related illnesses such as dehydration or acute drops in blood pressure that cause fainting.
Is there anything that can be done to help workers facing extreme heat?
Aside from general policy changes that better protect workers who work in high temperatures, workers should take frequent breaks and stay hydrated, especially during heat waves. It is also important to acclimate outdoor workers by gradually increasing the time they are exposed to warm environmental conditions over a 7-14 day period. New workers take longer to acclimate than workers who have already had some exposure.
In addition, the level of acclimation achieved by each worker is proportional to the initial level of physical fitness and overall heat stress experienced by the individual. And finally, we need to tackle the problem at the source: stop using fossil fuels, stop drilling at sea and stop fracking.
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