By John Ryan
Extreme temperatures place outdoor workers at increased risk of heat illnesses, which if untreated, can lead to death. Even though I’m generally considered young and healthy, I have experienced heat illness first hand.
Heat-related illness is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. It is a terrifying thing to personally experience or witness. As body temperature increases, the pulse increases rapidly. A fog of confusion sets in quickly while muscles scream in spasms for any hydration. As the body is unable to respond, movement and speech become difficult. Not long after, a person can lose consciousness. Even if a person is able to survive a heat illness, the damage can be lasting, causing significant harm to major organs like your brain, heart, kidney and muscles.
My own experience with heat illness as a high school football player took place during a tournament where each team played multiple games. The blistering heat was amplified by the turf fields we played on. Two games in, I began to feel the effects. I could feel my face flush as I became dizzy. Foolishly shrugging it off, I drank multiple bottles of water and kept playing. After more games, I took myself out realizing that this was something more than just being tired.
I laid in the shade panting vigorously. I vividly remember being able to think a thought but panicked as I was unable to make my mouth say any words clearly. I realize now that I was lucky to not have had further complications, yet many face this risk frequently.
While my own experience was serious in retrospect, I didn’t fully realize how potentially life threatening heat can be until I worked as an emergency medical technician in the Charlottesville area. During an extreme heat day we received multiple calls for suspected heat illness. In one case, we arrived on scene to find a woman on the ground sitting, her breathing intense and laborious. Her high temperature was sharply contrasted by the absence of sweat. She was confused and slow to respond to our questions. As the fans in the ambulance roared and we placed ice packs on her, a shared unsaid understanding crept over our crew — if this woman had been outside much longer, the call might have had a much worse outcome.
Adults working in occupations that require large amounts of time outside, regardless of weather conditions, face this risk regularly in the summer months. Agricultural, construction and other outdoor workers are most at risk for heat-related illnesses.
Virginia workers experienced a rate of 100 nonfatal injuries per 10,000 workers due to heat, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This makes Virginia the 12th ranked state for heat illness due to work. In 2019, more than 1,000 patients received treatment at emergency rooms or clinics for heat related illness in Virginia according to the Virginia Department of Health. This number was approximately double the number of visits compared to the prior year.
These numbers are further amplified and are likely significantly underreported because vulnerable populations such as undocumented immigrants comprise a substaintial proportion of the outdoor work force. These workers not only are at a disproportionate risk, but may avoid or be unable to access treatment if they experience a heat related illness.
With record-breaking temperatures happening more frequently due to climate change, Virginia urgently needs to enact heat protection rules for outdoor workers. These regulations could help save lives and millions in associated healthcare costs. Arguments against such legislative protections claiming these to be unnecessary, too expensive, or impractical seem inhumane based on my first hand experiences. These modest and reasonable protections are not only medically necessary, but also are low cost and have been shown to work with relatively few changes to day-to-day operations.
Regulatory changes on this subject are currently being considered by the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board and, if adopted, would help prevent hundreds of heat-related injuries and dozens of deaths by providing training to recognize symptoms and requiring work breaks and access to water and cool spaces on high heat days.
Employers who require workers to be exposed to extreme temperatures should support these reasonable heat standards to keep their employees safe. As should all Virginians. The food that comes to our tables and the roads we drive on require workers to brave increasingly extreme conditions in our changing climate.
The pandemic helped highlight how much we rely on “essential workers” to keep our society moving during difficult times. It’s time we support improving common sense safety measures for workers in the Commonwealth to establish it as a better place to live– and work– for all.
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