Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Working outdoors in Southern Nevada is punishing during the summer months, and it’s only going to become more grueling as climate changes push the region’s temperatures higher.
Now, a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that if global warming goes unchecked, outdoor workers here and across the U.S. will soon face an exponential increase in the number of days they’ll be exposed to hazardous heat. The number will quadruple by midcentury, the report says, which will result in up to $55.4 billion in earnings being lost as workers are sent home early or kept off the job altogether due to intense heat.
More alarming yet, the problem will disproportionately affect nonwhite workers, as 40% of the nation’s outdoor workforce are people of color.
Put this issue on the long list of reasons we need to take aggressive action to address climate change.
For Las Vegas, the issue looms as an impediment to our construction industry, but also as a threat to our food supply. Agricultural workers will be largely affected by the mounting heat, which could result in greater difficulty in getting crops from fields to markets. If that happens, say hello to higher food prices, shortages of some products, etc.
Meanwhile, the report also points out glaring inadequacies in workplace safety regulations related to hazardous heat.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that employers curtail or discontinue outdoor work when temperatures cross certain thresholds; those are merely guidelines that companies can follow or ignore at their discretion. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has yet to establish an enforceable federal standard for protecting workers from heat, either outdoors or indoors.
An examination of heat-related deaths from 2010 to 2020 by National Public Radio revealed a number of problems stemming from the lack of an adequate safety net for workers.
For instance, at least a dozen companies reported more than one heat-related death, and there were several instances of warnings and complaints being ignored. “One worker collapsed and died after repeatedly complaining about the heat; another died after hauling 20 tons of trash for nearly 10 hours. In some instances, employees died after not having ample water and scheduled shade breaks,” NPR reported.
Many of these employees — about a third — were Hispanics working in farm fields. Their deaths are grossly disproportionate, given that Hispanics make up only 17% of the outdoor workforce in the U.S.
“That’s often the tragedy with these injuries and deaths is that they’re typically preventable,” said Rachel Licker, a Union of Concerned Scientists climate researcher and the report’s lead author, in a story for the news publication High Country News. “It’s about affording people, oftentimes, basic human rights — access to shade, drinking water, the ability to take a break when they’re on the job — so they’re not in a position of having to choose between their health and a paycheck.”
Las Vegas has had a front-row seat to the rise in global temperatures, with long stretches of highs above 100 in recent years punctuated by blasts where the mercury soars over 110. July brought one of those spikes this year — eight consecutive days of temperatures over 110, including a record-tying 117 degrees on July 10.
Heat-related deaths are uncommon here, which speaks well to the protections put in place by local employers, but the stresses are only going to intensify unless climate change is brought under control.
In the meantime, it’s critical for lawmakers to establish a federal heat standard for American workers. A bill that would direct OSHA to create a standard is under consideration in Congress — we trust that Southern Nevada’s congressional delegation will support it.
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