For Climate Change's Effect on WC, Policymakers Look To CA

22 Jul, 2019 Liz Carey


Sacramento, CA ( – As heat engulfs most of middle America, researchers say rising temperatures could become the norm, and outdoor workers will be the first to feel the impact.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 350 workers died from heat-related illnesses over the past 10 years. And tens of thousands of workers, the bureau found, have suffered from heat-related illnesses that were so serious they missed a day of work. In 2015, California, Texas and Georgia topped the charts for the number of workers with non-fatal illnesses due to heat. Combined more than 800 employees fell sick on the job and missed at least one day of work due to the heat.

And experts who believe the science of climate change is a reality, say, as the planet begins to heat up, more heat-related illnesses at work could be a result.

“Excessive heat exposure can cause heat stroke and even death if not treated properly. It also exacerbates other health problems like asthma and heart disease. The current epidemic of heat stress injuries and deaths will worsen in the coming years, as record-breaking summers are now becoming the norm. We need bold action to stop further climate change while also protecting vulnerable populations from the temperature rise that is already locked in. It’s critical that we enact heat stress protections before climate change puts even more workers in danger,” said Mike Tanglis, with Public Citizen, a group dedicated to fighting for workers and citizen rights. “The solutions to heat stress are common-sense: hydration, shade, and rest breaks. But most employers won’t implement them voluntarily. And despite repeated recommendations by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, OSHA has not adopted a heat stress standard.”

According to Public Citizen, more than 130 million workers lack any protection from the dangers of heat stroke. In its 2018 report, Workers in Extreme Heat, it said nearly 3 million workers in the agricultural and construction industries worked in extreme heat during the week of July 5, 2017.

Currently, only three states, California, Washington and Minnesota have labor standards related to heat. In California, the regulations are considered the gold standard to which other states, and the federal government, should model their laws after, advocates say.

“Heat is not an inconvenience or a nuisance,” Marc Schneker, a professor at the University of California-Davis who does research on the health effects of farm work, told USA Today. “It’s very real with consequences that can range from minor to fatal.”

Miguel Angel Guzman Chavez was a 24-year-old farmworker that came to the U.S. under the H-2A guest worker program. He died from the heat on June 21, 2018, five days after he arrived in the U.S. from Mexico. He was picking tomatoes for Beiza Farm Labor 2 Contractor and Motley Farms in the state of Georgia. He was stricken at the height of the daily heat which exceeded 100 °F

“How much is the life of a farm worker worth? Is it less than the life of any other human being?” Rodriguez said. “I am here today for… Miguel Angel Guzman Chavez, and many workers before … who died due to heat exposure. Their deaths are hard to accept because they didn’t need to happen.”

Rodriguez and the UFW urged Congress to enact legislation that would require employers to provide protections to workers in the heat. US Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced legislation on July 10 that would require OSHA to create workplace standards for dealing with the heat. Chu was a legislator in California at the time the California heat-related illnesses legislation was written and was an advocate of it on the state level. Now she hopes to see it take effect on a national level.

Currently, NIOSH addresses workplace heat stress with fairly commonsense guidelines – provide sufficient water, shade and rest when it’s hot. But the organization lacks any teeth to enforce any guidelines.

In 2015, researchers at Emory University found that Florida farmworkers whose body temperatures exceeded 100 degrees on hot days were more likely to report symptoms of heat-related illness, including dizziness, confusion, nausea and headaches.

“People focus on the deaths because they are so tragic and dramatic,” said Jeannie Economos, environmental health coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida and a collaborator on the study. “But you don’t have to just wait for somebody to die to be concerned about heat. The heat is so debilitating in so many other ways.” 

In Waco, Texas, city officials noticed that workers paving roads or landscaping city parks were falling ill, increasing the city’s workers’ compensation costs, Dr. Ronda McCarthy, city medical director told USA Today. By working with managers to train employees on prevention, as well as screening workers for diseases like diabetes or hypertension that could increase their risk for heat-related illnesses, the city was about to virtually eliminate heat-related illnesses to workers and to cut their median workers’ compensation costs in half.

Rising temperatures, and consequently its impact on workers, are something all states will have to deal with in the future, Rodriguez said.

“For July 11, 2019, according to the National Weather Service forecast, workers in many of the states that are represented in the Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections are expected to experience a maximum heat index of 96 °F in Charlotte, North Carolina, 108°F in Mobile, Alabama, and 94 °F in Richmond, Virginia,” he said. “In Georgia, both Atlanta and Savannah will feel a temperature of 98°F. The daily maximum heat index even in Washington State, Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania is high. For instance, it is expected to reach: 73 °F in Seattle, WA; 80°F in Minneapolis, MN and Grand Rapids, MI; 85°F in Detroit; and 90°F in Philadelphia.”

A report issued by ETH Zurich indicated models project that temperatures across the globe could be shifting, making places like Phoenix feel more like Baghdad.

The report estimated that by 2050, Salt Lake City would more resemble Las Vegas, and Las Vegas would more closely look like Phoenix. Cities in the northern hemisphere, the study said, would look more like cities located more than 600 miles to the south.

For places like Phoenix, that means average highs from May to September ranging from 98 to 112 degrees with no rainfall. Currently, during that same period Phoenix’s highs average between 94 and 106 degrees with an average of 7 inches of rain.

“As temperature continue to rise, the problem is going to get worse,” said Shanna Devine, Public Citizen’s worker health and safety advocate. “In some places, we’re going to lose the ability to work outside.”


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    About The Author

    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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