The summer of 2021 is very hot in most parts of the United States. Five minutes in a loft room without air conditioning is enough to make people sweat and dizzy, as we found in the heat wave in Washington State. This is a kind of heat that cannot move, think, do anything.
In parts of the United States, people work in high temperatures and then go home to keep warm throughout the summer. Studies have shown that long-term exposure to high temperatures poses an increasing threat to health and productivity, but it is often overlooked by employers.
A new federal initiative aimed at combating unhealthy heat exposure of vulnerable groups, including workers, may eventually ease. By uniting multiple agencies to solve the high temperature problem, the Biden government has the opportunity to help workers avoid exposure to dangerous acute and chronic high temperatures in the workplace and at home.
However, the plan has some important gaps and ambiguities. As infrastructure and policy researchers, we believe that these issues should be addressed to ensure people’s safety.
Who is at risk
If you are sitting in a well-structured air-conditioned building, heat is not a health and safety issue. However, people who mainly work outdoors, whether they are agricultural, construction or mining, military training, public utility or wildfire personnel, may not be able to obtain a cool environment in hot weather, which may increase their risk.
Indoor heat can also pose a threat to workers, such as cooking in a stuffy kitchen, or factory workers on assembly lines without sufficient air circulation. Clothing such as personal protective equipment and protective clothing can also exacerbate the effects of overheating.
When heat is combined with other hazards such as humidity, particulate matter or ozone in the air, health risks increase. Even if none of these hazards themselves are considered “extreme,” they may be a threat in combination. At many points of the day, workers may face a large cumulative burden of environmental hazards, and these burdens add up, and there is almost no way to adequately deal with these hazards.
Workers exposed to overheating at work are more likely than ordinary Americans to be low-income, immigrants, have chronic health problems, lack medical insurance, or live in poor-quality housing without air conditioning. This indicates that they may also lack a cool environment at home and may face higher risks.
The body’s response to heat
Cool night temperatures are important for the body to recover from exposure to high temperatures during the day. Studies have shown that hot nights reduce the body’s ability to replenish water and negatively affect sleep, which may cause more work injuries the next day.
Severe heat episodes can also permanently damage internal organs. One study linked hospitalization for acute heatstroke to an increased risk of early death in later life.
People have different thresholds for heat exposure. Pre-existing health conditions, such as health conditions affecting the heart or lungs, increase the possibility of extreme heat harm to human health.
Whether a person adapts to the environment means that they have adapted to the high temperature, which is also very important. Seattle’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) is different from Las Vegas’ 100 degrees Fahrenheit. However, adapting to the climate can only take you so far. After 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), the body’s ability to cool itself will be significantly reduced. Therefore, there is an upper limit for adaptation. Similarly, adaptation to the environment may not prevent chronic heat exposure from affecting health.
Adapt workers to the increasing extreme heat
There are many strategies to reduce occupational exposure to high temperatures. The workplace may need to rest and provide water; implement techniques to keep workers cool, such as cooling vests; reduce expected productivity when the temperature rises; or even stop working.
However, as climate change intensifies, some of these strategies may become less effective. Certain locations may face high temperatures and humidity levels that exceed operability thresholds.
The new efforts announced by the Biden administration in late September 2021 provide direction for adapting to extreme heat inside and outside the workplace. Some of the proposed strategies include setting standards for heat exposure in the workplace, improving enforcement and inspections of worker heat safety, increasing opportunities for federal funds to be used for home cooling assistance and technology, and converting schools to places where air conditioning can be used free of charge.
As mentioned earlier, the strategy for workers has nothing to do with the workplace and hot weather. However, long-term exposure to high temperatures, whether living in a hot home or habitually hot climate, is an emerging risk. Worker-specific responses to the social determinants of health and chronic exposure may be necessary, such as improving cooling opportunities for migrant workers in temporary housing.
The rapid reduction of heat-absorbing greenhouse gas emissions is also crucial to reducing climate change, because climate change will lead to more frequent exposure to dangerous temperatures.
Other gaps in the plan
There are also major gaps in the proposal to address America’s most pressing high-temperature risks.
First, other environmental threats such as air pollution can exacerbate heat-related health effects, but currently, high temperature and humidity are not taken into consideration when formulating workplace health and safety standards and thermal health policies. From emergency responders exposed to toxic dust when the Surfside Condo collapsed to farm workers facing wildfire smoke in Fresno, California, working together to address high temperatures and poor air quality is a key need.
Second, the proposal does not address the high temperature risks of other facilities, including prisons and immigration detention centers. Here, thermal protection and the proper implementation of these protective measures are critical to the workers and personnel in these facilities.
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Third, in addition to increasing federal spending on cooling assistance, utility companies may also be required to stop the shutdown of residential utilities during extreme heat events. Although many utility companies provide such protections to people who have received medical exemptions, the process can be arduous.
The solution should consider what affects a person’s vulnerability to heat and the threat of their long-term exposure. In a rapidly warming world, ambitious thermal safety policies are essential.