The summer of 2021 was devilishly hot in most parts of the United States. Just five minutes in an attic guest room without an air conditioner could be enough to make one sweat and leave a light head, as one of us discovered during a heatwave in Washington state. It’s the kind of heat where it’s impossible to move, to think, to do anything.
In some parts of the United States, people work in the heat and then go home to heat all summer. Research shows that chronic heat exposure is a growing threat to health and productivity, yet it is often overlooked by employers.
A new federal initiative to address unhealthy heat exposure for vulnerable populations, including workers, may eventually offer some relief. By bringing together multiple companies to solve the heat problem, there is an opportunity to help Biden administration staff and the home avoid dangerous intense and prolonged heat exposure.
Marketwatch coverage: Biden has unveiled plans to tackle the ‘silent killer’ of extreme heat
But there are some important gaps and ambiguities in this plan, which, as infrastructure and policy researchers, we believe people need to be protected.
Who is at risk
If you are sitting in a well-built, air-conditioned building, heat is not a matter of health and safety. But those who work primarily outside, in agriculture, construction or mining, in military training or in utility or fire crews, may have limited access to cool environments on hot days and this may increase their risk.
Indoor heating can also be a threat to workers, such as cooks in steam kitchens or factory workers on assembly lines without adequate airflow. Personal protective equipment and clothing such as hazmat suits can further intensify the effects of excess heat.
When heat combines with other hazards, such as humidity, particles in the air or ozone, health risks increase. Even if no danger in itself is considered “extreme”, they can be a threat. At many times of the day, a worker may face a wider growing understanding of environmental hazards including a few options for adequately dealing with them.
Workers who experience excessive heat in their jobs are more likely than low-income Americans to be in low-income housing without immigration, chronic health problems, lack of health insurance, or lack of air conditioning. This suggests that their home may also lack a cool environment and be at high risk.
How the body responds to heat
Cool night temperatures are important for the body’s recovery from heat exposure during the day. Studies have shown that hot nights can reduce the body’s ability to rehydrate and negatively affect sleep, which can lead to more workplace injuries the next day.
An intense heat episode can permanently damage internal organs. In one study, hospitalization from an acute heat illness was linked to an increased risk of early death in later life.
Humans have different thresholds for heat exposure. Pre-existing health conditions, such as affecting the heart or lungs, can increase the likelihood of extreme heat damage to a person’s health.
It also matters whether a person is fit, that is, whether they have adapted to the heat. One hundred degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) in Seattle differs from 100 F in Las Vegas. However, getting used to the climate can only take you so far. The cooling capacity of the body decreases significantly beyond 95 F (35 C). Therefore, there is a high limit to adaptation. Similarly, optimization cannot prevent health effects from chronic heat exposure.
Adapting workers to increasingly intense heat
There are many strategies to reduce professional exposure to heat. A workplace break may be needed and water may be supplied; Apply technology that keeps workers cool, such as cooling waste; Decrease the expected rate of productivity as the temperature rises; Or even stop working.
Some of these strategies will, presumably, be less effective under the severity of climate change. Some locations may experience high temperatures with humidity levels that exceed limits for efficiency.
The Biden administration’s new efforts, announced in late September 2021, provide direction for adapting to extreme heat in the workplace and outside. Proposed strategies include creating workplace heat exposure standards, improving workers’ application and inspection for heat protection, increasing opportunities for federal funding to direct household cooling assistance and technology, and transforming schools into locations with free air conditioning access.
As presented, strategies for employees are isolated in the workplace and on hot days. However, prolonged heat exposure, living in a hot house or habitually from hot weather, is an emerging risk. Worker-specific responses that target social determinants of health and long-term exposure, such as the need to improve cooling access among workers traveling in temporary accommodation.
Rapid reduction of heat-trapped greenhouse gas emissions is also essential to reduce climate change, which will lead to more frequent exposure to dangerous temperatures.
Other gaps in the plan
There are also significant gaps in the proposal to address the most pressing heat risks across America.
First, other environmental threats such as air pollution increase the impact of heat-related health but are not currently associated with high temperatures and humidity when developing workplace health and safety standards and thermal-health policies. From emergency response operators exposed to toxic dust in surfside condo collapses, to farm workers facing fire smoke in Fresno, California, there is an important need to address the simultaneous heat and low air quality.
Second, the proposal does not address the risk of heat in other facilities, including prisons and migration detention centers. Here, thermal protection and the proper application of that protection are important for both the worker and the person with those benefits.
Third, in addition to increasing federal spending on cooling assistance, utilities may need to shut down residential utilities during extreme heat. Although many utilities provide this type of protection to people on medical waivers, the process can be difficult.
Solutions should consider what affects a person’s heat weakness, as well as the threat of their long-term exposure. Ambitious heat protection policies are important in a rapidly warming world.
Lynée Turek-Hankins is a PhD. University of Miami is a student of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami. He was the author of a chapter for the U.S. Fifth National Climate Assessment.
Katherine Mac is an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami. Mac was the lead author of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report and led a chapter on the U.S. Fifth National Climate Assessment. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Climate Risk Management, a member of the Editorial Board of the Oxford Open Climate Change, and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Aspen Global Change Institute, the Stratospheric Controlled Partition Experiment, and Carbon 180..
This comment was originally published by The Conversation – a major federal response to professional extreme heat that ends here.
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