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Heat waves threaten health of outdoor laborers

As climate change spurs soaring temperatures, outdoor laborers, particularly those who are older, are threatened by new levels of heat.

From Laredo, Texas, to London, heatwaves have been smashing records this month. While some people can cool down with air conditioning and other reliefs, many face dangerously hot working conditions.

In the United States, few regulations exist to protect laborers from increasingly frequent extreme heat events. As a result, the types of jobs susceptible to workplace heat impacts are likely to expand.

"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 disparities ... lower-income populations and especially outdoor workers have little escape, finding themselves at the mercy of temperatures where even moderate physical exertion could be lethal."

Barry leads efforts at the Center for Innovation in Global Health to address climate change as a global health crisis, including while serving as an adviser to two presidential transition teams.

Rob Jordan, associate editor at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, discussed extreme heat's impacts on workplace risks and marginalized communities with Barry.

This Q&A has been adapted from its original version.

What are the most pressing workplace risks of extreme heat, and how have they changed over the past few decades or years?

There is a heightened risk for heat stroke when core temperatures rise, something we saw during the devastating heat waves in India and Pakistan this past spring. When heat is combined with humidity, it can create deadly temperatures beyond which the body can self-regulate. In terms of mental health, we're seeing heightened suicide risk in farmers in India and the American West driven by despair around heat and drought-induced crop failures. 

What justice and equity factors are at play with this issue?

People who work low-wage jobs that are outdoors and subject to weather impacts often can't bear many days without pay. So people might continue to work, even if it's not a healthy choice. Many of these people also don't have access to the same health care resources as higher-income populations, which is especially unfair given climate changes' outsized impacts on their health. Socioeconomically disadvantaged areas are often impacted the most, and the people affected often don't have the platform or resources to advocate for themselves.

What else is important to know about extreme heat risks to laborers?

People might be surprised to know the disproportionate impact on older people. Aging outdoor workers may be forced to choose between early retirement and risking their lives in extreme weather conditions. Older people may also take medications that prevent sweat, compromising their ability to cool themselves and making them prone to heat-related illnesses like dehydration or acute drops in blood pressure that cause fainting.

Is there anything that can be done to help laborers facing extreme heat?

Aside from broad policy changes that better protect laborers working in high temperatures, laborers should take frequent breaks and stay hydrated, especially during heat waves. It's also important to acclimatize outdoor workers, gradually increasing the time during which they are exposed to hot environmental conditions over a 7-14 day period. New workers will need more time to acclimatize than workers who have already had some exposure.

In addition, the level of acclimatization each worker reaches is relative to the initial level of physical fitness and the total heat stress experienced by the individual. And finally, we need to address the problem at its source: Stop utilizing fossil fuels, stop offshore drilling and stop fracking.

Stanford scholars and other experts will examine the rising risk of extreme heat for both infrastructure and property, as well as the negative health impacts for humans and ecosystems at an upcoming webinar.

Photo by Lemonsoup14

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