By using a narrow definition of heat-related injuries federal and state agencies miss thousands of others. Written by Alvin Chang and Aliya Uteuvoa, 2021.
If a worker falls from a ladder because of heat-induced dizziness, it is typically not categorized as a heat-related injury. US government agencies are likely significantly undercounting the number of workplace injuries caused by extreme heat, according to new research.
Federal and state labor departments keep track of heat-related injuries, which include things like dehydration and heat strokes. But if a worker falls from a ladder because of heat-induced dizziness, it’s typically not categorized as a heat-related injury. New research published this week shows that when those injuries are taken into account, the actual toll of heat on US workers is orders of magnitude higher than official counts.
“I see a lot of people get injured because they’re working in the sun and get fatigued,” said Guillermo Oseguera, a 49-year-old boilermaker who works in Los Angeles. “You get frustrated because you’re hot. But nobody is going to come and do the job for you.” The researchers also found that heat takes a larger toll on low-wage workers. Low-wage jobs tend to be more dangerous than high-wage work, so this disparity in workplace injuries could still show up on a 60F day. But as work days gets hotter, that disparity between the rich and the poor only increases.
Using a worker’s home zip code as a way to measure income, the paper found that the injury risk for low-income workers increases at a much higher rate as the temperature rises. This is probably because low-income workers are more likely to work in occupations where they are exposed to heat, such as jobs that take place outdoors, Behrer said.
This finding is especially salient because Americans are projected to experience more and more hot days. The country could adapt – with more climate-controlled workplaces, a shift in working hours to avoid the hottest parts of the day and worker protection laws.
Without adaptive responses, more hot days will likely lead to a significant increase in US workplace injuries. Without adaptive responses, more hot days will likely lead to a significant increase in US workplace injuries. But without adaptive responses, California workers can expect to see between 4% and 10.7% more injuries by 2050, according to an analysis Behrer did for the Guardian. There are no federal laws protecting workers from extreme heat, but some states have passed heat-related worker protection laws.
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