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Outdoor Workers Could Face Far More Dangerous Heat By 2065 Because Of Climate Change

A worker fills a bottle with water on a farm during a drought in Firebaugh, Calif., on July 13.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
A worker fills a bottle with water on a farm during a drought in Firebaugh, Calif., on July 13.

Outdoor workers in the United States could face four times as many days with hazardous heat by mid-century if action isn't taken to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, according to a report published Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The consequences of that extreme heat can be severe: a new NPR/Columbia Journalism School investigation found that at least 384 workers have died from environmental heat exposure in the last decade. And the problem is getting worse: the three-year average of worker heat deaths has doubled since the early 1990s.

"The last seven years have been the hottest on record," said Rachel Licker, the senior climate scientist and an author of the UCS report, said in a statement. "Without additional protections, the risks to workers will only grow in the decades ahead as climate change worsens, leaving the roughly 32 million outdoor workers in our country to face a brutal choice: their health or their jobs."

The report also projects a severe economic toll, with the average outdoor worker losing more than $1,700 each year because of work stoppages on days when heat and humidity top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the point at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends employers reduce work schedules.

Lost wages from extreme heat are projected to amount to more than $55 billion annually.

Unequal Impact On People Of Color

People of color, who are disproportionately represented in outdoor occupations, stand to be hit especially hard hit. More than 40 percent of U.S. outdoor workers identify as African American, Black, Hispanic or Latino, according to the report, and they could lose $23 billion in annual earnings by 2065 if no action is taken to reduce emissions.

The finding mirrors previous research that has shown that residents of low-income areas and communities of color in American cities endure far higher temperatures than people who live in whiter, wealthier areas.

Kristina Dahl, a UCS senior climate scientist and and an author of the report, said in statement that existing inequities faced by people of color, including "increased exposure to air pollution, lack of access to quality health care and adequate cooling, and underfunded social services," can compound the impact of extreme heat. Migrant workers, she said, including those in the country illegally, are especially at risk.

Lack Of Regulations Puts Outdoor Workers At Risk

In addition to the heightened risks posed by climate change, the UCS report highlights the lack of federal worker protections as a major issue for worker safety.

As NPR has previously reported, at least a dozen companies have had multiple employees die from environmental heat exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not adopted a national heat standard to safeguard workers and often decides not to penalize companies for worker deaths.

The report's authors call for a number of policy changes, including adapting worker schedules to coincide with cooler times of day and lessening overall workloads. Employers, the report says, should also implement mandatory heat safety plans, heat monitoring and reporting requirements, and multilingual training for supervisors and workers to facilitate better and faster responses to dangers imposed by extreme heat.

"We know this risk is worsening and has significant implications for workers, employers and the broader economy, so we need to be prepared," Licker said.

Imperative To Halt Emissions As Soon As Possible

Regulation and adaptation alone will not be enough to address the problems faced by workers as long as greenhouse gas emissions continue to warm the planet.

The projections in the UCS report, though, are based on a scenario that seems increasingly less likely: a constant level of emissions through mid-century.

That projection would place the world far out of step with the goals set by the Paris Agreement — a commitment signed by nearly all of the world's countries which seeks to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and ideally keep it below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees F).

As part of the deal, the United States has pledged to halve its emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Other countries have set similar targets.

Right now, though, few of the world's biggest economies, including the U.S., are on track to meet those goals — something the report's authors say needs to change.

"To limit future extreme heat, the United States must urgently contribute to global efforts to effectively constrain heat-trapping emissions by investing in just and equitable solutions that get us to net-zero emissions no later than 2050," Licker said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.