With temperatures breaking records every summer, we’re already living through climate change’s fallout. But some communities are experiencing more effects than others, especially when it comes to working conditions: Dirty air strafes our lungs on our daily commutes, power plants pump smog into downwind neighborhoods, and farm laborers are getting roasted alive.
In the United States, heat-related death and illness poses one of the most immediate and widespread risks linked to global-warming trends. In July alone last year, according to Public Citizen, “An average of 1.1 million agriculture and construction workers labored in extreme conditions each day.” A study on hospitalizations in Los Angeles from 2005 to 2010 found that heat-related emergency-room visits grew by about 8 percent with each percentage increase in residents working in construction, and by 11 percent for every comparable rise in the farming, forestry, and related outdoor sectors.
In a new study on occupational health in an era of climate change, researchers warn of a rising surge of work-related hazards directly tied to extreme weather events and intensifying carbon emissions.
A warming atmosphere also elevates the risk of heart, lung, and renal problems, ranging from asthma attacks to 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. And communities must prepare for huge demographic shifts due to climate volatility, including population displacement and migration related to catastrophic weather and “climate refugees.”
Around the world, volatile weather and climate-driven environmental disaster are also potentially fueling mass psychological crisis: Devastating droughts in rural India, which plunge poor farmers into catastrophic debt, are linked to seasons of suicide epidemics. First-responders and outdoor workers faced with environmental catastrophes are also vulnerable to post-traumatic stress. Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast sparked waves of depression, anxiety, and even suicide, for residents as well as emergency responders. Today, Hurricane Maria has been anecdotally described as a regional mental-health trauma for Puerto Rico, destabilizing families and communities through mass displacement, deepening isolation of rural regions, and destroying the already threadbare social-service infrastructure.
Dealing with the current and future harm to workers’ health involves rethinking occupational health and safety as both a social imperative and a labor-rights issue.
The co-authors of the report, Melissa Pensa Sharr, Ronda McCarthy, and William Brett Perkison, explained to The Nation: “The economic disruption likely to occur with unmitigated climate change will place a heavy burden on the social safety net from community effects, displacement, and unemployment, well beyond the disability and unemployment that is likely to arise from occupational health implications with respect to heat exposure. To this end, we should consider broadening and ensuring ample funding of social safety nets for community residents with particular attention to workers exposed to a changing climate.”
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 across workers’ lifetimes. The researchers point out, for example, that workers 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 the essential cause when a worker happens to have a heart attack during hot weather?” For workers dealing with psychological stress due to environmental disaster, “[Is their mental health] claim arising from workplace stress or from a risk shared by the community? It would be wise for workers’ compensation boards and carriers to consider these issues now and as an industry, rather than piecemeal as claims begin to surge.”
As McCarthy points out in her analysis of workers’ health and extreme weather, “The climate is changing, and the systems we operate within will have to change with it.”
But under Trump’s drive to roll back major environmental and labor protections, the climate crisis is deepening, and occupational-health policy seems to be backsliding as the planet heats up. The White House is slashing many environmental protections in order to relieve corporations’ “regulatory burdens.” As the White House seeks to weaken controls on carbon emissions and other greenhouse-gas pollution, Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) continues to ignore public pressure to set a national heat standard for worker protection.
Public Citizen and other groups have campaigned for OSHA to establish a national workplace heat standard that “would establish maximum heat load thresholds,” for industrial and agricultural workers, set enforceable standards for employers, and mandate preventive safeguards, such as provision of rest breaks, drinking water, and “personal protective equipment, such as water-cooled and air-cooled garments,” along with training and health and safety monitoring for extreme-heat conditions.
For many Americans, deliriously hot workdays will soon be the new normal for a large portion, perhaps a majority of the year. Public Citizen warns in a recent report, “The number of dangerous heat days that the 133 cities will experience, on average, will increase from 20 a year in 2000 to 58 in 2050.” Employers, meanwhile, often may be well aware of growing need for increased heat protection for their workers, but “often fail to furnish these protections—whether due to ignorance or wanton recklessness.”
Though McCarthy’s specialty is occupational health, not labor relations, she observes, “In my experience many of the most at risk workers are not aware of their employment rights. If they were aware of them, they might not be inclined to exercise them. These workers may fear job loss despite employment rights, 60 to 70 hour work-week time constraints and little means to negotiate a long arduous legal system….[T]he promulgation of an OSHA heat standard would impact the morbidity and mortality of thousands of workers with lives saved and…effects of heat stress mitigated.”
But because the labor forces most vulnerable to extreme heat are typically also the most disenfranchised, impoverished, and unstable workers in the country, the impacts of climate change speak to the urgency of ongoing struggles for workplace justice. Empowering those workers to fight for better protective gear, for more water breaks, or improved health care is a critical ground-up pathway toward climate-proofing workplaces. Because, on days when it’s too hot to work, it’s also too hot to risk your life for a day’s pay.