In These Times
by Mindy Isser
July 1, 2021
The end of June saw temperatures soar all around the United States, with historic heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest and excessive heat advisories, watches and warnings elsewhere. The heat is not just uncomfortable, it’s deadly, buckling roads and melting bridges, with temperatures climbing over 120 degrees in Death Valley, California and British Columbia.
While the 100 million computer workers in this country are more likely to be able to work safely indoors, other urgent and necessary work must continue outdoors, no matter the severity of the weather. The entirety of the working class is (or will be) affected by climate change, but it’s farm workers, letter carriers, construction workers, sanitation workers and other outdoor workers who are unable to escape to air conditioning, and are on the front lines of the environmental crisis. This clarifies the fight against climate change as one not just for environmentalists: Rising temperatures are a workplace safety issue. Relatedly, there is growing awareness among climate activists that workers’ rights and the future of the climate are inextricably linked. Continuing to connect these two existential issues is our best shot at a livable world in which we can all work safely and with dignity.
Between 1992 and 2017, at least 815 workers in the U.S. were killed and more than 70,000 were injured from heat stress injuries. It’s likely that the true number of workers hurt or killed due to extreme heat is much higher than reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Many workers who labor outside — particularly agricultural workers and construction workers — are undocumented or otherwise vulnerable and precarious, and may not know to report illnesses to OSHA. And of course, their employers are likely to misclassify a heat-related death. As temperatures continue to rise year after year, we can guess that the number of heat stress injuries and deaths will rise too.