A major federal response to extreme heat at work is finally here

The summer of 2021 has been devilishly hot across much of the United States. Just five minutes in an attic room with no air conditioning might be enough to leave a person drenched in sweat and dizzy, as one of us discovered during a heat wave in Washington state. It’s the kind of heat where it’s impossible to move, to think, to do anything.

In parts of the United States, people work in the heat and then to come home to heat all summer. Research shows that chronic heat exposure is a growing threat to health and productivity, but it is often overlooked by employers.

A new federal initiative combating exposure to unhealthy heat in vulnerable populations, including workers, could finally bring some relief. By bringing several agencies together to solve the heat problem, the Biden administration has the opportunity to help workers avoid dangerous acute and chronic heat exposure at work and at home.

But the plan has significant gaps and ambiguities which, like infrastructure and policy researchers, we believe it should be processed to ensure the safety of people.

Who is at risk

Heat is not a health and safety concern if you are seated in a well-constructed, air-conditioned building. But people who work primarily outdoors, whether in agriculture, construction or mining, as part of military training, or on a utility or forest fire crew, may have limited access to a cool environment in hot weather, which can increase their risk.

Indoor heat can also pose a threat to workers, such as cooks in a scorching kitchen or factory workers on an assembly line without adequate air circulation. Personal protective equipment and clothing such as hazmat suits can also intensify the impact of excessive heat.

When heat combines with other hazards, such as humidity, particles or ozone in the air, health risks increase. Even though none of the dangers per se are considered “extreme”, combined, they can pose a threat. At many times during the day, a worker may be faced with a large cumulative burden of environmental risks that add up, with few options to deal with them adequately.

Workers exposed to excessive heat at work are more likely average Americans are low income, immigrant, have chronic health problems, lack health insurance, or live in poor quality housing without air conditioning. This suggests that they may also lack a cool home environment and may be at greater risk.

How the body reacts to heat

Cool nighttime temperatures are important for the body to recover of heat exposure during the day. Research has shown that hot nights can reduce the body’s ability to rehydrate and negatively affect sleep, which can lead to more injuries at work the next day.

An episode of intense heat can also permanently damage internal organs. One study linked hospitalization due to acute heat illness to an increased risk of premature death later in life.

People have different heat exposure thresholds. Pre-existing health conditions, such as those affecting the heart or lungs, can increase the likelihood that extreme heat will harm a person’s health.

That a person is acclimatized, that is, has adapted to the heat, is also important. One hundred degrees Fahrenheit in Seattle (38 Celsius) is different from 100 F in Las Vegas. However, getting used to a climate can only get you very far. The body’s ability to cool down decreases considerably above 95 F (35 C). From where, there are upper limits to acclimatization. Likewise, acclimatization may not prevent the health effects of chronic heat exposure.

Humidity increases the risk to health as temperatures rise. (Credit: NOAA)

Adapt workers to increased extreme heat

There are many strategies to reduce occupational exposure to heat. A workplace may require breaks and provide water; implementing technologies that keep workers cool, such as cooling vests; reduce expected productivity rates when temperatures rise; or even stop working.

Some of these strategies, however, are likely to become less effective under intensification of climate change. Some places may face high temperatures combined with high humidity levels that exceed the maneuverability thresholds.

The new efforts of the Biden administration, announced at the end of September 2021, provide orientation to adapt to extreme heat inside and outside the workplace. Some of the proposed strategies include creating standards for heat exposure at work, improving enforcement and inspections for worker thermal safety, increasing opportunities to allocate federal funds to assistance and household cooling technologies, and transforming schools into places with free access to air conditioning.

As presented, strategies for workers are isolated from the workplace and hot days. However, chronic heat exposure, whether from living in a warm house or in a climate that is usually warm, is an emerging risk. Worker-specific responses that target social determinants of health and chronic exposure may be needed, such as improving access to cooling among shift workers in temporary accommodation.

Rapidly reducing heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions is also essential to reducing the climate change that will bring more frequent exposure to dangerous temperatures.

Other gaps in the plan

The proposal to tackle the most urgent heat hazards across America also has significant flaws.

First, other environmental threats such as air pollution exacerbate heat-related health impacts, but are currently not considered with high temperatures and humidity when developing standards for heat. occupational health and safety and heat-related health policies. Rescuers exposed to toxic dust at Surfside Condo Collapse to farmers confronted Smoke from fire in Fresno, California, combating heat and poor air quality together is a critical need.

Second, the proposal does not address the risk of heat in other establishments, including prisons and detention centers for migrants. Here, thermal protections and the proper application of these protections are essential for both workers and people in these facilities.

Third, in addition to increased federal spending for cooling assistance, utilities may be required to shut down residential utilities. cuts during extreme heat episodes. Although many public services offer such protections to those on medical waivers, this process can be arduous.

Solutions must consider what influences a person’s vulnerability to heat, as well as their threat of chronic exposure. Ambitious thermal security policies are essential in a rapidly warming world.The conversation

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

Katharine Mach is an associate professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami and a researcher at the UM Abess Center, specializing in environmental science and policy. His research assesses the risks associated with climate change and response options to deal with increasing flooding, extreme heat, forest fires and other hazards.

Lynée Turek-Hankins is a PhD candidate at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami and a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. She studies how infrastructure and policies can promote resilience and equity in a changing climate.

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