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Climate Change

Workers Shouldn't Have to Choose Between a Paycheck and Their Health

by Dr. Rachel Licker
October 05, 2021

If we do not take action on the climate crisis too many workers will face unsafe conditions. How can protect them?

Asunción Valdivia was a California farmworker and a father who died in 2004 after harvesting grapes in brutal heat conditions for ten hours. He asked for help, was not afforded it, and died of heat stroke in the car with his son on his way to a hospital. Tragically, Asunción Valdivia is not alone. Extreme heat exposure has killed at least 384 workers in the United States over the last decade, and the problem is poised to grow as climate change drives temperatures up. This is especially so given that most workers in the US lack mandatory protections that would keep them safe in the face of extreme heat. 

In a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, they projected this issue into the future and looked at the implications of increasing extreme heat for the safety and earnings of outdoor workers. What they found was startling. If society does not take action on climate change and heat-trapping emissions continue to grow to the end of the century, approximately 18.4 million outdoor workers in the United States would experience seven or more unsafe workdays annually by the middle of the century. In fact, in some parts of the country such as Louisiana, workers each year would risk losing more than a month’s worth of work time as a result of extreme heat. Furthermore, extreme heat could put approximately $55.4 billion of outdoor worker earnings at risk annually in the United States. As you can see, business as usual is simply not sustainable. 

Number of unsafe workdays annually at midcentury (2036-2065) in counties across the contiguous United States as a result of extreme heat without action to reduce heat-trapping emissions.

The number of unsafe workdays annually at midcentury (2036-2065) in counties across the contiguous United States as a result of extreme heat without action to reduce heat-trapping emissions.; 

Union of Concerned Scientists

I

Who are Outdoor Workers?

In the United States, roughly 32 million people – one out of every five employed adults – work outdoors. Outdoor workers are the people who pick our food, who build our homes, who respond to emergencies and deliver our packages. They are typically considered essential, and yet when the weather gets hot, they are oftentimes put in the position of having to choose between their health and a paycheck.

The Union of Concerned Scientists found that more than 40% of outdoor workers identify as Hispanic, Latino, Black, or African American. As a result, these communities would be disproportionately affected by increasingly unsafe outdoor work conditions and the risks to their livelihoods that such conditions would pose. For example, they found that without action on climate change, in the next few decades, extreme heat would put approximately $23.5 billion of Black, African American, Hispanic, and Latino worker earnings at risk annually. When coupled with systemic racism and related, existing inequities (for example unequal access to health insurance and quality healthcare), increases in extreme heat will make a bad situation worse.

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II

What would this look like on the ground?

Hendry County, in South Florida, stands out as among the hardest hit places as approximately 40 percent of Hendry’s civilian workforce is employed in farming, fishing, or forestry occupations alone. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, crop workers employed in these occupations are 20 times more likely to die from heat-related causes compared with all other civilian occupations. Hendry County stands out not just because of the large increases in extreme heat projected, but also because of racial and ethnic vulnerabilities. More than 50 percent of Hendry residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, and more than 25 percent are immigrants. While some of those immigrants may be US citizens, research has found that those who are not are more likely to die on the job because of extreme heat exposure than their U.S. citizen counterparts, especially if Hispanic. This is appalling and unacceptable. 

And while the numbers may be particularly staggering for counties in the southern US, this is a story for the entire country, as seen by the dramatic heat wave that hit the Pacific Northwest this year and claimed the lives of at least two outdoor workers in Oregon.

III

What would help?

Heat-related deaths are preventable. We can keep workers safe in the face of extreme heat by affording them basic provisions, including easy access to cool water, quality shade, and sufficient breaks. In honor of Asunción Valdivia, a piece of legislation has been proposed that would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to set a mandatory heat standard that would protect workers from heat-related deaths and injuries. In addition, the Biden Administration recently announced that they have begun the rule-making process to protect workers from extreme heat. Such federal measures should be complemented by state-level policies that reflect the needs of their unique workforces.

It is also critical that the United States immediately enact bold measures to meet the recent commitments it has made to reduce heat-trapping emissions. Such measures include ramping up the use of proven, low-cost renewable resources, electrifying as many sectors as possible, and modernizing our public transit system. This will limit the extent to which extreme heat can increase, and the brutality of the conditions that outdoor workers would face.

By enacting measures that limit climate change and measures that keep workers safe right now, we can stop outdoor workers from having to choose between their health and a paycheck. And we can treat them as the essential workers that they are.

Rachel Licker is a senior climate scientist with the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, Dr. Licker communicates climate science to policymakers, the public, and the media. She analyzes new developments in climate science and works to defend climate science budgets and programs. Dr. Licker earned her Ph.D. in environment and resources, and her B.S. in biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also holds an M.S. in environmental studies and sustainability science from Lund University in Sweden.

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