Climate Change Raises Risk For Outdoor Workers
A recent study of the planet’s warming climate predicts working outside will become riskier as communities endure more extreme heat days, hotter temperatures and heat waves that last longer
Too Hot to Work — a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists — finds outdoor workers face higher risks as the climate warms.
Not only will there be more hot days, but the high temperatures will be more intense, further increasing the health risk to outdoor workers.
Construction workers, farmworkers, public safety officers, are among those forced to toil outside in extreme temperatures because they need to support their families financially.
Those workers already have a 35-times higher risk of dying of heat exposure than the general population and that risk will increase as the climate warms.
“Between now and the middle of the century outdoor workers are going to increasingly lose work time because it’s too hot to work,” said Kristina Dahl, a climate researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And in many cases it’s going to mean that they lose out on potential earnings as well.”
The report estimates workers could lose up to $55 billion a year by the middle of the century because heat will force them to miss work.
Communities of color will endure a disproportionate share of the risk and the financial costs.
“People who identify as Black, African American, Hispanic, or Latino make up about 32% of the population in the U.S. But they make up about 40% of outdoor workers and is some different occupations those numbers are even higher,” Dahl said.
The heat is already a concern for Josh Middleton. His company, Siege Electric, is a sub-contractor for the mid-coast trolley extension project in San Diego County.
He is already helping workers deal with the heat, even though the project is in a mostly temperate region near the coast.
Siege Electric’s current project involves installing lights under trolley stations around the University Towne Center shopping mall. The work is outside, but Siege employees are shaded from the direct rays of the sun.
“We have to run a pipe from here to here,” Middleton said, as he pointed at architectural drawings.
However, not every job is in the shade and direct sunlight and heat can be brutal without special gear.
“They make certain visors,” Middleton said. “Your sunglasses. Different types of cooling packs.”
Contracts and tight construction schedules sometimes make the work difficult to move around if a heat wave settles in.
The key is finding ways to cope.
“It’s really based on the circumstances of the job environment,” Middleton said. “We would increase water intake and we would probably allow more time for break periods.”
Siege Electric’s workers are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Union rules require extra concessions people working in hot conditions, like shade and plenty of water.
But that may not be enough in the future.
The Too Hot To Work Report finds outdoor workers could increasingly feel the impact of climate change in their pocketbooks.
The report concludes that more than 7 million workers could lose up to 10% of their pay because extreme heat conditions keep them from doing their job.
Just avoiding work in the middle of the day may not be enough to keep productivity and wages up.
“Shifting work schedules to cooler parts of the day can in and of itself have implications that are negative to outdoor workers,” said Rachel Licker, a report co-author. “Not everyone wants to work nigh-time shifts. It can have implications for your ability to see your family, our mental health.”
The report predicts the number of days hotter than 100 degrees Fahrenheit could increase three to four times by 2050. That assumes not greenhouse gas reductions happen.
That substantially decreases the number of safe working days outdoors each year.
The report calls on the federal government to take action and move to protect workers and their wages.
The study also called for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which are driving climate change. Slowing the warming of the climate is the best way to keep the extreme heat from increasing and affecting the economy.
“We can save tens of billions of dollars in outdoor worker earnings if we take action now,” Licker said. “And those solutions to climate change, we have in hand. These are measures like investing in more renewable energy resources. We can get off fossil fuels. Electrifying more of our energy systems.”
But even if drastic action is taken to slow global warming, climate change is already here and some impacts cannot be avoided.