by Bryan Cahill
Climate change means more extreme weather events like the record cold and rain we experienced last winter here in sunny California. No matter the cause, just about everyone agrees that the earth is getting warmer. No matter where we live, we will all experience more frequent and more extreme heat events leading to more heat-related illnesses.
Over the past thirty-five years, heat has claimed more lives per year on average than flooding and hurricanes combined. Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the United States. Even so, many heat-related deaths go misdiagnosed or unrecognized because heat exposure often exacerbates underlying medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
“As we continue to see temperatures rise and records broken, our changing climate affects millions of America’s workers who are exposed to tough and potentially dangerous heat,” said U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “We must act now to address the impacts of extreme heat and to prevent workers from suffering the agony of heat illness or death.”
In 2021, LA Mayor Garcetti named Marta Segura as the city’s first Chief Heat Officer. On August 31 of 2022, Burbank and Woodland Hills reached record highs of 112 degrees. Temperatures continue to rise as evidenced by July of this year which is believed to be the hottest July experienced by the planet in the one hundred seventy-five years of recorded global temperatures.
On the upside, mitigating the risks is actually good for a business’s bottom line! I’ll get back to that point in a minute. First, what exactly are heat-related illnesses and what are the causes?
According to the EPA, heat-related illnesses can occur when a person is exposed to high temperatures, such that their body cannot cool itself sufficiently through sweating. Symptoms range from mild swelling, rashes, or cramps to potentially deadly heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
On Thursday, February 9, of this year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta joined a multistate coalition of attorneys general in a petition urging the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to take emergency regulatory action to protect workers against extreme heat. Bonta stated, “As climate change results in longer, more intense, and more frequent heatwaves, workers in California and across the country are increasingly and unnecessarily exposed to dangerous conditions on the job. We have the tools to address this challenge and we must use them.”
“Requiring cooling tents, extra workers, or other solutions should be proposed by the IA as we ramp up for negotiations on a new agreement with the AMPTP. Like the Teamsters, it is time for us to demand action on this issue at the bargaining table.”–Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien
Heat illness isn’t just something that occurs outdoors, it can happen indoors too or on days with multiple locations both indoors and outdoors. Thus, California is considering new indoor regulations. So there goes California again, creating new regulations that are bad for business, right? Not this time!
In considering the new regulations, California commissioned a cost analysis from the prestigious think tank, Rand Corporation. When Rand ran the numbers, they found that heat mitigation measures in the workplace proposed by California would reduce approximately two hundred injuries a year and prevent one to two deaths per year on average in indoor work environments. The study estimates the reduction in heat injury and death would add $200 million a year in benefits for California businesses! Truly a win-win situation!
On union productions, we already have one tool in place; Safety Bulletin #35 “Safety Considerations for the Prevention of Heat Illness.” The summary states, “Heat illness is preventable. Know your limits and take time to adjust to the heat. Above all, drink plenty of water and immediately report any signs of heat illness in yourself or others.”
But, is that really enough? One thing that irks me about this safety bulletin summary, as well as the language in many safety bulletins is that they place the burden of action for staying safe squarely on the workers. How many times have you heard someone in authority on a set say, “We are providing everyone some time to adjust to the heat.” What is the AMPTP’s responsibility in protecting us from heat illness?
Employers should have a plan in place in case of a heat illness emergency. This plan should include procedures for identifying and treating heat illness, as well as procedures for protecting workers from the heat. Employers should also monitor the weather forecast and take steps to protect workers if temperature or humidity is expected to be high. We do it for thunderstorms and as I have already pointed out, heat is a more deadly phenomenon.
According to the CDC, “The best way to acclimate yourself to the heat is to increase the workload performed in a hot setting gradually over a period of 1–2 weeks. Perhaps productions should be required to bring in extra workers or limit outdoor work during the acclimatization period.
Heat illness is a concern for all unions. On 6/15/2023, the Teamsters announced that UPS had agreed to provide air-conditioning in all new vans. “Air-conditioning is coming to UPS, and Teamster members in these vehicles will get the relief and protection they’ve been fighting for,” Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien said. Requiring cooling tents, extra workers, or other solutions should be proposed by the IA as we ramp up for negotiations on a new agreement with the AMPTP. Like the Teamsters, it is time for us to demand action on this issue at the bargaining table.
Even under the best protections, it is still true that we will still have a need to look out for each other both above and below the line. One condition of heat illness is confusion and a confused person can’t be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves. With temperatures in Los Angeles reaching what is traditionally our hottest time of the year, it is up to all of us to learn and recognize the signs of heat illness.