Extreme Heat Is Endangering America's Workers—and Its Economy

 In Rochelle, Georgia, farm worker Silvia Moreno Ayala begins her workday at 7 A.M. She dresses in protective clothing and applies sunscreen to shield herself from the sun's rays. Despite the early hour, the humidity is already making her sweat. Silvia carries a flattened water bottle in her back pocket as a way to stay hydrated throughout the day, as she often spends hours in the fields without access to water. She is aware of the dangers of heat stress and tries to prevent it by sipping water regularly. Silvia knows fellow farm workers who have suffered from heat-related illnesses, including hospitalization. Her doctor warns her that her kidneys, already damaged from years of working in hot conditions, may not be able to handle further strain. Nonetheless, Silvia continues to endure the oppressive heat, earning admiration from her employer, Stanley Copeland, for her resilience. However, the reality is that many workers have already died from heat exposure this year, as it is shaping up to be one of the hottest years in American history. The death toll began with an incident in Florida on New Year's Day, where a laborer died from heat stroke. As the summer heatwave intensified, more deaths occurred in Texas, involving a construction worker, a lineman, and a postal worker. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports around 40 heat-related deaths annually among outdoor workers, the true number is likely higher due to the undercounting of heat-related causes on death certificates. Public Citizen estimates that extreme heat contributes to hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries every year.   

Climate change is exacerbating heatwaves and hot days, posing significant challenges for outdoor laborers in the United States. This summer, a substantial portion of the population faced extreme heat advisories as temperatures soared into triple digits across the country. Climate scientists, analyzing the record-breaking temperatures, assert that these unbearable conditions would have been nearly impossible without human-induced global warming resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, next summer is expected to be even worse as the El Niño weather cycle intensifies during the winter. The past eight years have been the hottest in history, but they might also be the coolest compared to the next century. If we continue on our current trajectory, with a 4.86°F warmer planet by the end of the century, roughly 33 times more people worldwide will be exposed to dangerously high levels of extreme or humid heat. Regions in the American South and Southeast, similar to present-day Persian Gulf countries, may become too hot for safe outdoor work during much of the summer. However, despite the increasing temperatures, essential tasks like waste collection, package delivery, construction, electrical grid expansion, and crop harvesting must continue. A study from the University of Washington and Stanford University in 2020 showed that the average farmworker in the U.S. already faces dangerous heat levels for 21 days per year. By 2050, this number could rise to 39 days, and it could reach 62 days by the end of the century. The report's author, Michelle Tigchelaar, emphasizes the urgent need to protect workers across the nation, including regions that have not traditionally faced such extreme heat. It is evident that measures must be implemented to ensure the safety and well-being of these workers in the face of worsening heat conditions.  


Laws exist in most American states to fine individuals for leaving a dog outside without water or shade. However, the same protections do not extend to agricultural workers, roofers, road construction crews, delivery drivers, garbage collectors, and many other outdoor workers, with the exceptions of California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. This means that approximately 50 million workers in essential industries lack safeguards against extreme heat conditions. The consequences of this lack of protection are significant, amounting to an estimated $100 billion annually in lost productivity, increased workers' compensation premiums, lawsuits, and healthcare costs. However, it is relatively easy and affordable to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat. Public Citizen estimates that implementing requirements for employers to provide cool water and regular shaded rest breaks could prevent at least 50,000 injuries and illnesses each year. In 2021, President Joe Biden directed OSHA to develop a federal protocol mandating protection for outdoor workers from extreme heat, treating it as they would any other workplace hazard. However, the rulemaking process of OSHA is often slow, and it could come to a halt if a Republican president takes office in 2024. State-level efforts to implement heat protections have faced opposition in both red and blue states, and industry groups are already pushing back against a federal standard, claiming that heat protections place an excessive burden on businesses. Silvia, an agricultural worker, has been working tirelessly for 18 years, compromising her health to feed America. While she loves her job, she believes it is high time that someone prioritizes the well-being of workers like her, especially as the planet continues to warm. She advocates for the implementation of laws that provide better protection for outdoor workers. At 9 A.M., in UPS sorting facility in Rome, Georgia, around 90,000 UPS drivers across the country begin their routes in the iconic brown delivery trucks. These trucks, designed for efficiency and easy maintenance, lack air conditioning and insulation. As a result, the accumulated heat can make the interior feel like an oven when the sun beats down. Driver Barkley Wimpee describes the physical pain of working in such heat, mentioning that before even leaving the parking lot, he is already sweating due to the high temperatures. Unlike farm workers, drivers do not have the advantage of starting their delivery routes during the cooler morning hours, as deliveries are typically made during working hours. The challenging work conditions faced by these drivers highlight the need for better protection against extreme heat in outdoor workplaces.   

Larry McBride, a UPS driver based in Phoenix, Arizona, faces extreme heat conditions while on the job. He keeps a thermometer in the back of his van and on some days, the temperature exceeds a scorching 135°F. Drivers like McBride spend a significant amount of time in these sweltering conditions, shifting and selecting packages for delivery. McBride describes the disorienting and lightheaded feelings that arise from the heat, even to the point of potentially passing out. Stepping outside, even into a 115°F day, feels refreshing compared to the intense heat inside the van.

In the past, both McBride and his fellow UPS driver, Barkley Wimpee, experienced heat exhaustion and subsequently passed out while carrying out their duties. They were hospitalized and diagnosed with acute kidney injury due to heat exposure. Shockingly, company records submitted to OSHA indicate that at least a dozen UPS drivers require hospitalization for heat-related injuries each year, and tragically, not all drivers survive.

The death of Esteban Chavez, a 24-year-old UPS driver, on June 25, 2022, further highlighted the dangers faced by drivers. Chavez suffered from suspected heat stroke while delivering packages on a 95°F day in Pasadena, California. This tragedy sparked renewed calls for UPS to air-condition its fleet. However, at the time, company spokespeople considered this impractical as drivers frequently exit and re-enter the vehicles to make their deliveries.

The testimonies of drivers like McBride and Wimpee shed light on the challenging and potentially life-threatening conditions that UPS drivers face in extreme heat. The incident involving Chavez's death underscores the urgent need for further measures to protect drivers from the hazards of intense heat while they carry out their essential delivery services.   

On June 16, the members of UPS's Teamsters' union, totaling 340,000 individuals, voted to go on strike starting August 1. Their decision was contingent upon their demands for improved working conditions, which included the provision of air-conditioned vehicles, incorporated into a new five-year contract. While climate change was not explicitly mentioned in the union's demands, the underlying message of the campaign was UPS's failure to adapt to the new realities of global warming by implementing heat-adaptation strategies for its employees. During the final stages of contract negotiations, the company agreed to begin air conditioning all new vehicles by 2024. However, Larry McBride, a UPS driver, highlights that the larger concern is the relentless pace of work. Drivers are expected to deliver a significant number of packages each day, ranging from 150 to 300, with their progress closely monitored by dashboard-mounted cameras. McBride emphasizes the need for more breaks, expressing concerns that drivers are working 10 to 12-hour days in extreme heat, which is too demanding for the human body to sustain. This prolonged exposure to challenging conditions accumulates over time, making it difficult for drivers to fully recover and increasing the likelihood of accidents and errors.   

At 11 a.m. in Macon, Georgia, George Guzman and his team have temporarily halted their residential roofing project. They have been working diligently since dawn but will resume at 4 p.m. when the sun's intense heat subsides. Roofers, like Guzman, endure exceptionally high temperatures as they work at great heights with no access to shade, often surrounded by scorching tar. By taking a break during the hottest part of the day, Guzman allows his body to recuperate and build up resilience to complete the day's work and the overall project.

Guzman used to be employed by a larger company that would continue working their crews irrespective of the temperature. However, he recognized the potential risks involved and opted to start his own roofing business. With a small crew under his management, Guzman's rule is straightforward: they work diligently but prioritize safety on hot days. He believes that ensuring the protection of his team is just as important as earning money.

Although a 90°F day might be ideal for a trip to the beach, the story changes when engaged in physical labor. Activities such as lifting watermelons, sorting packages in overheated delivery vans, spreading hot tar on roofs, or hauling garbage cans increase metabolic activity, leading to a rise in core body temperature. The heart responds by redirecting blood away from overheated organs towards the skin, where expanded blood vessels aid in heat dissipation through the evaporation of sweat. However, this process can be compromised in humid conditions when sweat fails to evaporate, disrupting the body's cooling mechanism.

To assess the overall impact of heat on the human body accurately, the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) system comes into play. This measurement system incorporates traditional thermometer readings along with factors like humidity levels, sun angle, cloud cover, and wind to calculate the comprehensive effect of heat. WBGT has emerged as the gold standard in the field of heat performance research, offering valuable insights into the potential risks faced by workers in hot environments.   

When assessing the impact of heat on the human body, weather reports' heat index falls short as it solely considers temperature and humidity, measured in the shade. To better understand the human body's heat tolerance and the corresponding conditions, heat and human performance scientist Andreas Flouris, from the University of Thessaly's FAME Lab, utilizes the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) system. This system provides a more comprehensive assessment by accounting for various factors. Workers can handle WBGT levels of up to 89.7°F, equivalent to 100°F with 30% humidity or 86°F with 95% humidity, as long as they receive sufficient rest periods and opportunities to replenish lost electrolytes and fluids due to perspiration.

When the body loses excessive water and salt, primarily through excessive sweating, heat exhaustion sets in. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include nausea, dizziness, and an increased likelihood of making mistakes such as dropping tools, stumbling, or driving erratically. Over time, if left unaddressed, heat exhaustion can lead to chronic health issues as vital organs like the heart and kidneys suffer damage. Heat stroke occurs when the body's core temperature exceeds 104°F, preventing the body from cooling itself through sweating. Individuals experiencing heat stroke may stop sweating as their basic bodily functions start shutting down. Without immediate relocation to a cool environment and rehydration, death can occur within a few hours.

This unfortunate fate befell 29-year-old farmworker Efraín López García, whose lifeless body was discovered by coworkers under a tree in Homestead, Florida, on July 6, 2023. The WBGT that day reached 92°F, exceeding the safe tolerance level of the human body by over two degrees. Additionally, it was recognized as the hottest day in recorded history based on the global temperature average.   

Heat-related deaths and injuries during outdoor work are often disregarded as unfortunate accidents, particularly when they occur among those who are poor or migrants. This dismissive attitude is rooted in the perception that these workers are merely instruments of labor rather than recognized as valuable individuals. Dean Florez, a former California State Senator, emphasized the need for government intervention and workplace protections to challenge this mindset and acknowledge the importance of these workers to the economy.

Victor Manuel Montes Jasso and Jesus Lopez Damian, after a long morning of work in the sun picking watermelons, appreciate the much-needed break but also dread its end. They acknowledge the risks involved in working in high temperatures and relentless heat. Despite the lack of protection from the sun, they recognize the necessity of their labor and the reason they came to work diligently in the first place.

In the Wood Farms watermelon field in Rochelle, GA, Wood Farms work crew supervisor Billy Emory, situated in the air-conditioned tractor cab, witnesses the laborers nearby enduring the heat and humidity. He admires their ability to tolerate such conditions, recognizing that he and others like him are unable to withstand the same level of heat.

A significant number of farm laborers in the United States are Latino, comprising 65% of the country's 2.6 million farm labor workforce. It is one of the most dangerous occupations in terms of heat exposure. Studies highlight that agricultural workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat-related causes than workers in other sectors. This alarming statistic is attributed to indifference, lack of protections, and a persisting racist belief that people of color are better equipped to handle the heat, a notion rooted in historical plantation practices. This belief is untrue and perpetuates systemic injustices in the agricultural system.

Workers in poverty often endure unfavorable conditions due to limited options and economic precarity. They build endurance to withstand extreme conditions because they have few alternatives. However, despite the responsibility of employers to protect workers from hazardous conditions under OSHA's general employment regulations, many farm laborers are reluctant to voice their concerns due to fear of deportation, especially if they are undocumented or hold temporary visas.

The economic vulnerability of these workers also leads to a temptation to prioritize productivity over safety, as many laborers are paid based on piece rates. This incentivizes working through the body's warning signs, potentially resulting in heat-related illnesses. Migrants, such as Montes and Lopez, who work on temporary visas, face increased health risks in the long run. Research indicates that migrants from lower-income countries are 80% more susceptible to dangerous heat strain in agricultural work compared to native employees.

Without adequate oversight and education regarding the dangers of heat exposure, the toll on workers will continue to rise as heat levels increase. The combination of economic precarity, exploitation, and insufficient protections creates a concerning scenario for the health and well-being of these vulnerable workers.   

In the town of Cordele, Georgia, the El Paso Tienda Mexicana minimart offers a variety of familiar products from home for the local farming community. The shelves are filled with items like peanut candies, plantain chips, dried chilies, and bottled hot sauces. Among the refrigerated drinks, stacks of lemon-lime-flavored Pedialyte catch the eye. Normally intended as a remedy for dehydration in children suffering from diarrhea, it has become a popular choice for adults who need to quickly replenish salts and electrolytes lost through excessive sweating. While it may not be as flavorful as Gatorade, it is a more affordable option. Silvia Moreno, a former saleswoman turned farmworker, often stops by El Paso Tienda Mexicana after a hot day in the fields and a quick shower. She restocks her cooler with ice and Pedialyte in preparation for the next day's intense heat.

As a supervisor for Copeland, Moreno takes the well-being of her work crew seriously. She ensures they receive regular breaks and finishes their work early, before the peak of late afternoon heat and humidity. Using her own resources, she keeps the crew's cooler stocked with an ample supply of water and Pedialyte to sustain them throughout the day. However, not all supervisors share the same mindset. Moreno has witnessed supervisors from other farms pushing their crews to work continuously until 7 or 8 p.m. If workers dare to request a break, they face beratement from their supervisors who might even tell them to go home and not come back. While these supervisors may leave a couple of gallons of ice water at the field's edge at the start of the workday, it quickly runs out within an hour, leaving the 30 or so workers without access to hydration. If workers ask for more water, they are met with responses like "It's your responsibility to bring your own water if you're thirsty."

This discrepancy in how supervisors treat their workers highlights the unequal conditions faced by farm laborers in the heat. Moreno's actions serve as a compassionate example, but the mistreatment and lack of access to essential resources faced by other workers point to the need for improved oversight and protections in the agricultural industry to ensure the well-being of all workers in extreme heat conditions.   

The Nixon Administration initially proposed the establishment of a federal heat safety standard to protect workers in 1972, around the same time when OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) was created. However, this proposal did not make any substantial progress. In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in heat-related deaths and injuries, bringing the issue to the forefront. Constible states that the urgency is being amplified by the effects of climate change. 

China took the lead in 2012 by mandating that employers provide protective measures for outdoor workers, followed by Spain's announcement in May of banning outdoor work during extreme heat periods after a street cleaner died while working in a heatwave in Madrid last summer. Even Qatar, which faced criticism for its treatment of workers during the construction of infrastructure for the World Cup, has implemented national heat protection standards, limiting the hours and duration of outdoor work on high-heat days.

Having a heat safety standard would hold employers accountable for preventable injuries and deaths of their workers. It would also level the playing field for employers who prioritize employee well-being. A standard would create clear expectations for everyone involved and provide workers with a comprehensive understanding of their rights, protections, and a mechanism to ensure enforcement when employers fail to meet the requirements and obligations. 

Implementing a federal heat safety standard would not be overly burdensome. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control already offers recommendations on rest and hydration frequency based on specific heat and humidity indexes. These recommendations could serve as the basis for new rules, establishing mandated paid breaks of appropriate lengths and intervals proportionate to the heat index and physical exertion. Public access to water and shade would be crucial, as well as protecting workers from retaliation when reporting violations, such as the fear of termination or deportation.

An ideal federal standard, according to Fulcher, would resemble California's regulations that were established in 2005 following a series of farmworker deaths. These regulations, which came into effect permanently in 2006, stipulated high-heat procedures to trigger when temperatures reach 95°F. Initially met with opposition from the California Farm Bureau, these regulations have proven successful. Former senator Florez, a champion of the regulations, confirms that productivity hasn't declined in the agricultural industry. In fact, protecting workers has had positive effects on business. 

Since California's initiative, other states such as Washington, Colorado, and Oregon have adopted heat protection standards. However, efforts to protect workers in other states have mostly stalled. Bills in New York, Nevada, and Virginia have faced obstacles, and Texas passed a law that reduced water breaks for construction workers during a heatwave. In Florida, despite passing legislation to protect student-athletes, the Republican-controlled legislature has failed to pass a heat illness prevention bill for workers multiple times. 

A federal standard would apply nationwide and has encountered opposition from industry lobby groups. Concerns have been expressed regarding costs, but there are also legitimate concerns about the impact of climate change on local weather conditions. Farmers who already operate on tight budgets anticipate difficulties in balancing worker care with the challenges brought on by unpredictable weather extremes. However, Fulcher argues that by neglecting worker breaks, the costs associated with heat-related illnesses, injuries, and accidents outweigh the cost of implementing safety measures. 

While studies demonstrating the productivity benefits of heat standards are limited due to the scarcity of such standards, experiencing a day of working in the hot sun is enough to understand how heat can negatively impact productivity. Compliance costs should be considered against potential financial losses that may already be occurring. 

In conclusion, a federal heat safety standard would address the urgent need to protect workers from heat-related risks. It would ensure employer accountability, create equitable working conditions, and provide workers with clear rights, protections, and avenues for enforcement. The experiences in California and other states that have implemented heat standards have shown positive outcomes for both workers and businesses. Understanding the long-term benefits of safeguarding workers' health and safety outweigh the costs associated with compliance.   

At 5 p.m. at the Ryland Waste Management Depot in Macon, GA, Chris Powell is ready to finish his work for the day. Despite the challenging job of handling garbage cans in the scorching heat, the company ensures that employees take regular breaks, including two 15-minute pauses and a lunch break. Powell keeps himself hydrated by drinking water from a frozen bottle throughout the day. Although the heat this summer has been intense, he hasn't found it too hot to continue working, and he has confidence that if the conditions became too extreme, the company would call the truck back to base. Powell's supervisor, Maurice Dillard, emphasizes the importance of garbage collection while also prioritizing the health and safety of workers. If the Georgia heat becomes too severe, they would consider adding more breaks, adjusting the pickup schedule, or increasing automation to minimize time spent outside. The focus is on adapting working conditions to ensure employee well-being. Lanier, the boss, welcomes the idea of a federal heat protection standard and encourages other employers to prioritize their employees' welfare. Meanwhile, by 9 a.m. the following day, numerous cities across the United States, including Phoenix, Tulsa, Baton Rouge, and key cities in California, are experiencing temperatures over 100°F. This extreme heat has prompted public health advisories, urging people to stay indoors, drink water, and avoid outdoor activities. Despite these warnings, some workers, such as farmhands in Florida, road construction crews in Texas, and delivery drivers in Phoenix, are still compelled to work under life-threatening conditions. These workers express concerns about the difficult choice between earning a living and preserving their health.   

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