New warnings over climate threat to US workers

Scientists have warned the United States faces a threat to over $55 billion of its economy unless it plays its part in the battle to reduce global warming.

A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) warned that unless action is taken between now and 2065, climate change is projected to quadruple US outdoor workers’ exposure to hazardous heat conditions, jeopardising their health and placing up to $55.4 billion of their earnings at risk annually.

“Outdoor workers, including those in agriculture, construction, delivery services and emergency response, are essential to keeping the fabric of our society intact,” said Dr Rachel Licker, report author and a senior climate scientist at UCS. “The last seven years have been the hottest on record. Without additional protections, the risks to workers will only grow in the decades ahead as climate change worsens, leaving the roughly 32 million outdoor workers in our country to face a brutal choice: their health or their jobs.”

The “Too Hot to Work” analysis found that nationally by mid-century, assuming no reduction in global warming emissions:

  • For approximately 18.4 million outdoor workers in the United States, extreme heat would put an average of seven or more workdays at risk annually; roughly 3 million workers have experienced this level of risk historically.
  • Total outdoor worker earnings at risk due to extreme heat are projected to reach about $55.4 billion annually.
  • Outdoor workers in construction and extraction occupations are projected to face the highest total earnings at risk due to extreme heat at about $14.4 billion annually, followed by those in installation, maintenance and repair occupations at about $10.8 billion annually.
  • The average outdoor worker risks losing more than $1,700 in annual earnings due to extreme heat, though workers in the 10 hardest-hit counties risk losing nearly $7,000 per year on average.
  • The average outdoor worker in installation, maintenance, repair and protective service occupations stands to lose the most annual income at approximately $2,200 due to extreme heat.

The “Too Hot to Work” report combined county-level projections of dangerously hot days in the contiguous United States from the 2019 peer-reviewed UCS analysis “Killer Heat in the United States” with U.S. Census data on workers in the seven occupational categories with the highest proportion of outdoor jobs and US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for keeping outdoor workers safe during extreme heat conditions.

The number of workdays at risk is calculated by adding the partial days lost when the combined heat and humidity reach between 100 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit, a range in which the CDC recommends employers reduce work schedules, and entire days lost when such conditions exceed 108 degrees Fahrenheit, the threshold at which the CDC recommends employers stop work. The report does not project future changes in the number or distribution of outdoor workers. Mid-century results are determined by averaging the findings for the period between 2036 and 2065.

For farmworkers, who die of heat-related causes at roughly 20 times the rate of workers in all other civilian occupations according to CDC data, the danger of extreme heat is compounded by routine pesticide exposure.

“It’s a deadly cycle. Heat stress makes farmworkers more susceptible to injury from toxic pesticides, while the heavy protective clothing they must wear increases the risk of heat-related illness,” said Dr Marcia DeLonge, a research director and senior climate scientist in the Food and Environment Program at UCS and an author of the 2018 “Farmworkers at Risk” report. “Moreover, climate change is amplifying the risks by causing an increase in insect pest populations and making weeds more abundant, which will likely drive more pesticide use, further endangering the people who put food on our tables.”

According to the report the states with the highest total outdoor worker earnings at risk annually due to extreme heat are Texas ($12.2 billion), Florida ($8.4 billion), California ($3.3 billion), Arizona ($2.6 billion) and Louisiana ($2.3 billion).

About 20 percent of the US labour force works outdoors, with significant numbers of outdoor workers located in urban areas and outdoor workers comprising a larger share of the local economy in rural communities, added the report. “These workers are largely unprotected as federal guidelines are only recommendations. In addition to the CDC guidelines, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) merely suggests that employers implement safety precautions when the heat index, or ‘feels like’ temperature, exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“While there are suggested guidelines, the United States doesn’t have enforceable national heat-safety standards to protect outdoor workers during extreme heat,” said Dahl. “Furthermore, only two states—California and Washington—have any such permanent standards. The lack of safeguards during extremely hot days has historically left workers exceedingly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses and even death.”

“To limit future extreme heat, the United States must urgently contribute to global efforts to effectively constrain heat-trapping emissions by investing in just and equitable solutions that get us to net-zero emissions no later than 2050,” said Licker. “Our analysis also recommends that all levels of government act now to better protect our nation’s essential outdoor workers. We know this risk is worsening and has significant implications for workers, employers and the broader economy, so we need to be prepared.”

The report urged Congress to adopt the “Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021,” legislation named in remembrance of a California farmworker who died from preventable heat stroke after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in triple-digit temperatures. The bill would direct OSHA to set protective standards—such as mandating that employers provide adequate hydration, shade and rest breaks—for outdoor workers regularly exposed to heat.”

According to the report the states with the highest total outdoor worker earnings at risk annually due to extreme heat are Texas ($12.2 billion), Florida ($8.4 billion), California ($3.3 billion), Arizona ($2.6 billion) and Louisiana ($2.3 billion).

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