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New Dangers: Heat, Fire, Smoke

New Dangers: Heat, Fire, Smoke

Safety planning for new and emerging hazards

Many common workplace hazards are well-documented with plenty of training materials and guidance on safety strategies, but other hazards lack this clear and easy-to-find guidance. This is especially true for those hazards exacerbated by climate change, such as heat, wildfires, and wildfire smoke, which present special challenges for workplaces that are trying to keep their people safe. This page points to helpful resources and background on these hazards that may otherwise be hard to find.

Heat risk to workers #

From Public Citizen’s report, Hot Take - Urgent Heat Crisis for Workers:

Exposure to excessive heat is one of the most dangerous problems facing workers today. Tens of thousands of workers suffer heat illnesses, injuries and fatalities every year in the U.S. This is a toll disproportionately borne by Black and Brown workers, and low-income workers with limited options for safer employment. This is most clearly demonstrated by the plight of farmworkers, who have the highest rate of heat-related worker deaths, and are overwhelmingly immigrant workers with little power to demand workplace reforms from their employers.

Other facts from Public Citizen:

  • Farmworkers die from heat-related illness at a rate 35 times the average for US workers.
  • Official US statistics of heat-related deaths (all industries) greatly underestimate the number of fatalities. Public Citizens estimates annual work-related deaths from heat between 600 and 2,000 nationwide, with an additional 170,000 heat-related injuries each year, as well. That makes heat the third-leading cause of workplace injuries across all industries.
  • The physical and mental capacity of workers to function drops significantly as heat and humidity increase.

Risk from heat exposure is also high for restaurant and warehouse workers, many of whom have limited opportunity to cool down amidst intense, fast-paced work environments.

There are three levels of heat-related injury (from the Union of Concerned Scientists report on extreme heat):

  • Heat cramps: cramping or pain in the stomach, arms, or legs as a result of excessive sweating that causes loss of large amounts of salt and water from the body.
  • Heat exhaustion: dizziness, a weak pulse, nausea, and fainting.
  • Heat stroke: The most severe heat-related illness, heat stroke, can occur when the body’s core temperature rises from its usual 98.6°F to 104°F or higher. High body temperature is associated with increased heart and respiratory rates and, at extreme levels, damage to the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver. This can be fatal.

UCS continues:

Without cooling, heat-related deaths can occur quickly—typically the same day or the day after outside temperature spikes—which signals the need for a quick response to extreme heat conditions… However, health impacts from heat can also occur one or more days after the exposure to extreme heat, and each additional consecutive day of extreme heat increases heat-related mortality rates. While one-day heat events are enough to raise the rates of heat-related illness, longer heat waves are more likely to have a larger effect on a variety of adverse health outcomes.

These risks are even greater for children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions. Chronic, recurring heat injury can also lead to long-term health problems.

Effects on productivity and pace #

Workers’ capacity and productivity decreases in high temperatures and high humidity. From Public Citizen:

Foster et al. developed a model to predict the reduction in work capacity associated with increases in ambient temperature and relative humidity (see Figure 1). The model predicts, for example, that a worker is able to work at close to full capacity when it’s 77°F with a relative humidity of 30%. However, worker capacity drops dramatically as temperatures and humidity rise. Worker capacity drops to 25% when the temperature reaches 104°F with a relative humidity of 80%. This is the equivalent of only working 15 minutes each hour.

Chart of estimated worker capacity at different temperatures

Because of the dangers of work in heat, businesses must calibrate their expectations about productivity and pace to the weather conditions and, most importantly, to workers’ needs. For now, the chart and estimates above are the best reference for business planning and setting expectations for work output.

Safety plans & training materials #

The UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health & Safety offers some of the best guidance and training materials for farms, including training/discussion guides, handouts, and workplace postings, in both English and Spanish:

Their YouTube channel also includes short video training modules on heat safety in Spanish and English.

The UC Davis materials are based on the CalOSHA heat standard for workplace safety. This is certainly a good place to start.

To be ready for whatever weather may come, make a comprehensive plan for how your workplace will respond to the dangers of hot weather, addressing each of these points (adapted from Public Citizen):

  • Temperature/humidity thresholds
  • Workload and pace
  • Rest breaks, planned and as needed
  • Indoor and outdoor cooling, including air conditioning in worker housing (if provided)
  • Hydration
  • Heat stress response plan
  • Emergency response plan
  • Heat acclimatization for workers
  • Monitoring weather and work conditions
  • Worker training, communication, and feedback
  • Contingency plans for rearranging/rescheduling work due to hazardous conditions
  • Record keeping of injuries
  • No retaliation for slow-downs, breaks, and stoppages due to stress or injury

Laws, regulations, & advocacy #

There is currently no federal heat standard for workplace safety. OSHA has only recently begun a process of developing guidance, and reactionary employers and their lobbyists have been fighting to prevent and delay any action by the federal government. Proposed legislation in Congress may impose an interim heat standard until the final rule is develop but there are no guarantees until (unless) the bill passes. Even without specific guidance or standards, though, the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act still requires all employers to provide safe working conditions.

As of October 2023, California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Minnesota have state-level heat protections for workers. (For more information, see the National Resources Defense Council map.)

How to take action: Since 2018, Public Citizen, the UFW Foundation, and Farmworker Justice are leading a national campaign to get Congress and OSHA to protect workers from the urgent and increasing dangers posed by heat. Part of this work includes demanding Congress pass the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury and Fatality Prevention Act, named after a farmworker who died in extreme heat in 2004. See their website and follow their social media accounts for opportunities to take action.

For background on these efforts to win a federal heat standard and keep workers safe in the heat:

Wildfires, smoke, and air quality #

Dangers of wildfire smoke #

Wildfires have been a hazard in the western United States for years, but hotter, drier weather has intensified wildfires and brought hazards to areas that have been spared in the past. Workers, managers, and even state agencies have been caught off guard and often struggle to find good information regarding safety during wildfire smoke.

Why is wildfire smoke dangerous? As UC Davis notes:

The main harmful pollutants are the tiny particles called particulate matter (PM) that measure 2.5 microns or less. The particles are much smaller than a grain of sand and can enter the bloodstream through the lungs when they are breathed in.

Exposure to smoke can lead to short-term symptoms such as chest pain, fatigue, coughing, burning eyes, difficulty breathing, and rapid heartbeat. Long-term symptoms include reduced lung function, chronic bronchitis, worsening of asthma, and heart failure. Children, older adults, pregnant people, and people with other health conditions (especially lung and heart conditions) are particularly at risk.

When wildfire smoke is present, workplaces should tailor their response to the severity of the conditions. Outdoor workers doing physical labor are especially at risk. Mild conditions may be fine for the healthiest people, although long-term exposure to even mildly compromised air quality is associated with chronic health problems…meaning that the healthiest people may not stay that way for long if they work in recurring wildfire smoke. During mild to moderate conditions, employers should provide proper protective masks (even in indoor spaces that are unfiltered) and allow for breaks and rest as needed. In hazardous conditions, work may need to be rescheduled or canceled.

Safety plan #

The AJP compiled guidance from various sources to produce a Wildfire Smoke Safety Plan which you can adapt and use in your workplace. This template is included in AJP’s larger Template for a Farm Health & Safety Plan and addresses:

  • Training
  • Monitoring & communication about air quality conditions
  • Preparation for hazardous conditions
  • Guidelines for PPE
  • Action plans based on air quality conditions

See the AJP Wildfire Smoke Safety Plan.

Workplace postings, training materials, & other resources #