Work Injuries Tied to Heat Are Vastly Undercounted, Study Finds
The extreme heat causes far more injuries in the workplace than official records record, and these injuries are concentrated among the poorest workers, new research shows, the latest evidence of how climate change is making people worse off. inequality.
Hotter days not only mean more cases of heatstroke, but also injuries from falls, collisions with vehicles or mishandling of machinery, data shows, resulting in an additional 20,000 injuries on the job every year in California alone. Data suggests that heat increases workplace injuries by making it harder to concentrate.
“Most people still associate climate risk with rising sea levels, hurricanes and wildfires,” said R. Jisung Park, professor of public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles and lead author of the study. “The heat is only beginning to seep into the consciousness as something that is immediately damaging.”
The findings follow record-breaking heat waves in the western United States and British Columbia in recent weeks that have killed an estimated 800 people, deepened wildfires, triggered power outages and even killed people. hundreds of millions of marine animals.
But the new data, described in testimony to Congress Thursday, underscores how heatwaves can hurt people in unexpected ways as well.
For example, extreme heat is not only a threat to workers outdoors, but also to those who work indoors in places like manufacturing plants and warehouses. These additional injuries mean lost wages and higher medical bills for low-income workers across a wide range of industries, widening the wage gap as temperatures rise.
To understand the link between extreme heat and worker injuries, Dr. Park, along with his co-authors, Nora Pankratz and A. Patrick Behrer, obtained reports on workplace accidents in California from 2001 to 2018 and built a database of over 11 million injuries showing the date and zip code for each.
The authors combined these reports with the maximum temperatures for each day and location. They then investigated whether and by how much the number of injuries increased on days with warmer temperatures.
This strategy offers a new way to estimate the number of heat-related injuries, rather than relying solely on the cause of injuries listed in workplace accident reports. Those reports showed an average of around 850 injuries per year that have been officially classified as caused by temperature extremes, but new data suggests the tally is far too low.
On days when the temperature was between 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, researchers found that the overall risk of workplace injuries, regardless of the official cause, was 5 to 7% higher than on days when temperatures were in the 1960s. When the temperature rises above 100 degrees, the overall risk of injury was 10 to 15 percent higher.
This indicates a high number of heat related injuries which are listed in other categories. The researchers found that the extreme heat is likely to have caused about 20,000 more injuries per year, or 360,000 more injuries over the 18-year period they studied.
“That’s about eleven times the number of workplace concussions and at least nineteen times the annual number of workplace injuries recorded by the microdata on workers’ compensation for temperature injuries. extremes, “the authors wrote.
The results are expected to be made public as a working document on Monday. Dr Park presented his findings Thursday at a hearing by the House Special Committee on the Climate Crisis.
The additional risks of workplace injuries from high temperatures are not distributed evenly. The lowest-paid 20 percent of workers suffer five times more heat-related injuries than the highest-paid 20 percent of workers, the researchers found.
This difference may reflect the type of work low-paid workers do, compared to their higher-paid counterparts, said Dr Park. For example, in manufacturing, high temperatures increase injuries by about 10 percent and 15 percent for wholesale trade workers. People in these industries are more likely to be exposed to hazardous conditions in the first place, and therefore difficulty concentrating can result in injury.
By comparison, workers in finance, insurance or health care saw no strong link between temperatures and injuries. This could reflect the greater prevalence of air conditioning in these workplaces, as well as the absence of hazards: if someone who sits at a desk all day has difficulty concentrating because of the heat, ” there are no real safety implications, ”Dr. Park said.
The gap in heat-related injuries between low-paid and high-paid workers could also reflect living conditions.
Researchers at the University of California at San Diego reported this week that low-income neighborhoods in the United States tend to be significantly warmer than wealthier neighborhoods during the summer. The susceptibility of low-income workers to heat-related injuries could stem from a lack of air conditioning and higher temperatures in the home, said Dr Park.
Income isn’t the only way heat-related injuries are unevenly distributed among working Americans. Hot days are three times more dangerous for men than for women, the data shows, perhaps because men are more likely to work in places with dangerous conditions. And for workers in their 20s and 30s, the added risk from higher temperatures is about twice as great as for workers in their 50s and 60s.
The results also contain good news.
The link between extreme heat and workplace injuries weakened after 2005, the researchers found. It was also the year California began requiring employers to take measures to protect workers from high temperatures, such as providing water, shade and breaks for outdoor workers. on days when it’s over 95 degrees.
While this does not prove that California rules have reduced heat-related injuries, it does raise the possibility that employers and governments may reduce the effect of extreme heat on worker safety, the authors said. .
But only so much. After 2005, the link between temperature and injury did not disappear – it declined by about a third.
A message for lawmakers, Dr Park said, is that governments should do more to reduce emissions of gases that warm the planet, such as carbon dioxide, in order to curb future temperature increases. But in the meantime, workers need more protection from the effects of high temperatures, he said.
“Not only should we engage in aggressive climate mitigation – that is, moving away from fossil fuels,” Dr. Park told the committee Thursday. “Policymakers may also want to think proactively about climate adaptation. “
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