Extreme Temperatures from Climate Change Will Harm Workers

November 16, 2021

As climate change leads to increases in the frequency and severity of extreme heat events globally, workers in the United States will suffer, particularly workers who are already considered vulnerable. This article is the second of two pieces summarizing key findings from a ​​recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on the impact of climate change on the socially vulnerable.

Both summaries use the EPA analysis based on a 2°C level of warming from the 1986 to 2005 base period. Prior to the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, referred to as COP26, we were on track for 2.7°C of warming. Based on the commitments made at COP26, we may now be on track to limit warming to somewhere between 1.8°C and 2.4°C. Given this predicted increase in warming and that extreme heat is the deadliest of all weather hazards, the impacts of extreme temperatures must be examined. This article emphasizes the importance of considering the effects of extreme temperatures on workers, as climate change drives up the number of days a year with temperatures above 32°C (90°F). This analysis does not evaluate changes in labor hours that may result from other climate-driven weather events that may affect labor, such as hurricanes, forest fires, flooding, and other extreme weather disasters. The EPA report focuses primarily on the direct effects of extreme temperatures on labor hours in weather-exposed industries, such as construction and agriculture. In this article, however, we will take a broader look at these direct effects, as well as the potential indirect effects on worker health and well-being, and we will contextualize how these events may also harm industries that are not considered “weather-exposed,” such as retail.

The Direct Effect of Extreme Heat on Work Hours Across the United States

Climate change is expected to significantly increase the frequency of extreme heat days—days where the weather is significantly hotter than typical for that location at a given time—and reduce weather-exposed workers’ incomes. As the EPA report notes, “Workers in weather-exposed industries tend to be lower-income individuals who are particularly reliant on their income for meeting basic needs,” and, thus, any loss of wages will be economically painful. One group of weather-exposed workers, farmworkers, only earn about half the median wage for workers in the US.

Weather-exposed workers in the US are expected to lose, on average, 14 hours of work annually. The loss of work hours is even more severe when considering only regions particularly vulnerable to extreme heat, such as the Southeast, the Southwest, and the Southern Great Plains. Weather-exposed workers in these areas are expected to lose anywhere from 17 to 26 hours of work annually.

That this loss in income is significant is further supported by some of the academic literature on the effects of extreme heat on payroll per capita, which finds that individuals’ incomes are decreased as a result of extreme heat. Much of this research notes that workers in weather-exposed industries, such as construction, manufacturing, and transportation, are particularly vulnerable to these harms. Workers who are not directly exposed to extreme temperatures may still lose work hours due to a lack of reliable air conditioning in the workplace and, possibly, disruptions or danger commuting to work, since extreme heat can detrimentally impact roads. Under prolonged periods of high heat, roads can exceed their thermal thresholds and begin cracking and buckling. Drivers may also face an increased risk of tire blowouts, and roads may deteriorate prematurely.

Extreme Heat Can Harm Workers by Creating Unsafe Work Environments and Causing Worsened Health Outcomes

Though not emphasized in the EPA report, extreme heat not only harms workers by leading to a loss of work hours, but also by possibly creating unsafe work conditions, increasing the number of workplace injuries, and causing worsened health outcomes. During periods of extreme heat, workers may choose to work in unsafe work conditions to make ends meet or may be compelled to work by their employers so as to not lose their job. This is particularly salient for weather-exposed workers, as these workers face greater exposure to extreme heat, are typically lower-income individuals, and are generally especially reliant on their income to meet their basic needs.

Extreme heat is dangerous. By some estimates, extreme temperatures are responsible for approximately 12,000 premature deaths in the US annually and have resulted in serious injury for 70,000 US workers from 1992 to 2016. When temperatures exceed 32°C (90°F), it can compromise an individual’s ability to regulate their body temperature, cause dehydration and/or heat stroke, and exacerbate preexisting conditions such as cardiovascular or respiratory diseases. In severe cases, extreme heat can also cause death. To meet their basic needs, workers should not have to risk illness or death.

Lastly, though not highlighted in the EPA report, workplace injuries are known to increase as a result of extreme heat. Hotter temperatures significantly increase the number of workplace injuries both outdoors and indoors, and in ways that seem unrelated to temperature. It is likely that by reducing cognitive function and causing people to make mistakes, extreme temperatures are harming the health and well-being of workers.

These Effects Compound Each Other and Can Further Existing Inequalities

The loss of work hours and thus of income, the necessity of working in unsafe conditions to make ends meet, worsened health outcomes and increased mortality, and a greater number of workplace injuries can all result from extreme temperatures. These effects may compound each other to further harm workers. For example, any individual who is dependent on all of their work hours to make ends meet and suffers from a loss of work hours may be unable to pay for the necessary health care to prevent the exacerbation of preexisting conditions caused by extreme heat. Similarly, any individual who suffers from an extreme temperature-driven workplace injury may find themselves out of work and unable to meet their basic needs.

Further, as emphasized in the last article, most communities of color—Black, Latinx, Native American, Alaskan Native, and Pacific Islander—are particularly vulnerable to the loss of work hours due to climate-driven increases in temperatures. Some of these demographic groups are also especially at risk of other climate-driven harms that may further exacerbate the effects of extreme heat on labor. Similarly, the risk for workplace injuries as a result of extreme heat is significantly higher for individuals with lower incomes. The loss of work hours due to extreme heat disproportionately harms minorities and already underserved groups, thereby potentially worsening existing inequalities. Policies aimed at addressing the harms of climate change on labor must consider the economic impacts, such as decreased labor productivity and monetary economic losses, and the harms to workers’ health.

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