Outdoor workers are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
As temperatures rise, air quality worsens, and extreme weather events become more intense and frequent, our approximately 32 million outdoor workers are among the most heavily impacted. When outdoor workers suffer, the economy suffers – heat-related worker productivity losses were already estimated at $100 billion in the United States in 2020 and could double by 2030.
An increase in average temperature and extreme heat days increases outdoor workers' susceptibility to heat related illnesses (HRIs), including heat rash, heat exhaustion and potentially fatal heat stroke. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, from 2011-2019 approximately 344 workers died due to environmental heat exposure.
An increase in air pollutants can lead to respiratory illness, such as asthma, which makes it harder to cope with polluted air and certain diseases. Further, outdoor workers can be exposed to wildfire smoke, which can lead to adverse health effects, including asthma and pneumonia.
An increase in the number and geographic range of disease-carrying insects and ticks caused by warmer temperatures exposes outdoor workers to a greater risk of vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile Virus.
Local governments have a pivotal role in protecting their outdoor workers
Local governments are positioned to address the needs of outdoor workers in their communities. While working within the federal framework outlined below (and state framework if applicable), local governments have many tools they can use to protect the outdoor workers in their community. Jump to Best Practices for Local Governments
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the Department of Labor creates and enforces the federal regulations to protect workers. Currently, there are no specific federal regulations to protect outdoor workers from the effects of climate change, but some general regulations may apply.
OSHA relies on the "general duty clause," which requires employers to keep workplaces "free from recognized hazards," to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat. In 2022, OSHA launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP) to help prevent heat-related illnesses; the NEP expands OSHA's enforcement component and reiterates its compliance assistance and outreach efforts.
OSHA also published recommendations on protecting outdoor workers from the heat, including developing a Heat Illness Prevention Plan and supplying workers with water and rest breaks. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published a recommended standard.The Biden administration launched an effort to respond to extreme heat, emphasizing protections for outdoor workers.
Extreme Weather Events
Currently, four states, California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, have adopted regulations to protect outdoor workers from the effects of climate change. Maryland and Nevada are currently developing heat protection regulations. Common features in these states' heat protection statutes include requiring employers to provide their outdoor workers with a 10-minute rest every two hours and access to both suitably cool drinking water and shade. Three of the four states also have high-heat procedures in place when temperatures exceed 90- or 95-degrees Fahrenheit. Common features in the states' air pollution protection statutes include developing a communication system between the employer and employees and implementing engineering and administrative controls to reduce air pollution exposure.
CalOSHA's rules for outdoor workers apply to specific sectors: agriculture, construction, landscaping, oil and gas extraction, and transportation or delivery of agricultural products, construction materials or other heavy materials. These employers must create a Heat Illness Prevention Plan. When the temperature exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit, employers must provide access to shade and to suitably cool water and encourage frequent drinking. Temperature at or above 95 degrees Fahrenheit trigger high-heat procedures. These include ensuring effective communication between employees and supervisors and designating at least one employee authorized to call for EMS. Agricultural employers must provide their workers with a 10-minute rest period every two hours.
CalOSHA provides protections for employees exposed to wildfire smoke. The protections apply to employers with a reasonable anticipation their employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke. They also apply generally when the current Air Quality Index (current AQI) for PM2.5 is 151 or greater. Firefighters engaged in wildland firefighting are exempt.
Employers must implement: (1) a system communicating wildfire smoke hazards between employees and supervisors; and (2) engineering and administrative controls to reduce employee exposure, (e.g. providing enclosed areas where air is filtered, relocating work locations, changing work schedules, providing and encouraging use of respirators, and effective training for employees).
Colorado OSHA rules protect outdoor workers in agriculture. The rules apply when the forecasted high temperature for the day equals or exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Employers must provide access to adequate shade and at least 32 oz of water/hr/employee kept at 60 degrees or cooler, in addition to maintaining effective communication and implementing a training program.
Additional requirements apply when there are increased risk conditions, including a daily high forecast of at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit, unhealthy air quality, a shift or workday that is over 12 hours, where heavy clothing/gear is required or the employee is in their first four workdays. Employers must also ensure at least a 10-minute break for every two hours of work and provide fans to all employees residing in employer-provided housing.
Oregon OSHA's rules protect outdoor workers in the agriculture, industry, construction, and forest industries. Emergency operations directly involved in the protection of life or property are exempt.
The rules apply when the heat index equals or exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Employers must develop an acclimatization plan for new hires and a heat illness prevention plan. Additionally, employers must provide access to shade, access to a sufficient supply of cool or cold drinking water, and ensure employees take a break ranging from 10 minutes every two hours to 40 minutes every hour, depending on the heat index. Employers must also put into place certain high-heat practices when engineering controls (e.g. fans or a/c) and administrative controls (e.g. scheduling during the cooler part of the day) do not reduce an employee's exposure to a heat index of less than 90 degrees.
Oregon OSHA's rules establish wildfire smoke protections for outdoor workers in agriculture, industry, construction, and forest activities. The rules apply when employees are or will be exposed to wildfire smoke where the ambient air concentration for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is at or above 35.5 µg/m3 (Air Quality Index value of 101 for PM2.5). Employers must monitor and assess air quality at each location where employees are exposed and develop a 2-way communication system between supervisors and employees. The rules also require employers implement engineering and administrative controls to reduce employee exposure and provide wildfire smoke training to all employees.
Washington OSHA's permanent Outdoor Heat Exposure Rule is in effect May through September. The rule goes into effect at varying temperatures depending on clothing types but applies in most clothing at 89 degrees Fahrenheit. There are specific requirements for firefighters, wildland firefighters, agricultural workers, and general industry workers. In general, employers must provide both access to adequate shade and a sufficient quantity of suitably cool drinking water, establish a mandatory 10-minute rest period every 2 hours, train employees and supervisors on heat-related illness, and create an outdoor heat exposure prevention plan.
Washington OSHA released an emergency rule for wildfire smoke, effective from June 15, 2022 through September 29, 2022, and recently initiated a process for a permanent rulemaking. The emergency rule applies to all employers that reasonably anticipate their employees may be exposed to a PM2.5 concentration of 20.5 µg/m3 (Air Quality Index 69) or more for wildfire smoke. Firefighters are exempt and are covered under their own standard. The emergency rule required employers to determine employee exposure to PM2.5 for worksites before each shift and periodically thereafter, implement a system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards, establish effective exposure controls whenever feasible where the current PM2.5 is 35.5 µg/m3 (AQI 101) or more, and provide respirators and encourage employee use where the current PM2.5 is 35.5 µg/m3 (AQI 101) or more.
Enact ordinances or guidelines that protect outdoor workers from climate change effects such as extreme heat, air pollution, and vector-borne diseases (if not preempted under state or federal law; local action is preempted by the federal government only where OSHA has enacted a regulation regarding a particular hazard or there is an OSHA-approved state plan). Collaborate with local labor organizations to learn what protections they need and what works best for the outdoor workers. Look to states with outdoor protection standards for examples. Additional protections could include anti-retaliation laws for reporting unsafe working conditions, increased sick-leave to recuperate from heat-related illnesses and including heat protections, vector-borne disease avoidance and wildfire smoke protections in community benefit agreements and project labor agreements.
Create a climate action plan or heat resiliency plan that includes specific provisions for outdoor workers. Key strategies to incorporate include: (1) building employer and employee awareness of climate change dangers to outdoor workers, ways workers can stay safe and their rights; (2) training employers and employees on outdoor worker safety in extreme weather events; (3) requiring businesses to provide heat safety standards and air pollution protections; and (4) ensuring all programming accommodates for any language barriers.
Appoint a Chief Heat Officer to coordinate a response to the current impacts of climate change. Examples include Phoenix, Miami-Dade County, and Los Angeles. CHO responsibilities include creating a Heat Plan for the city/county, updating building codes for decarbonization, increasing education and awareness on the dangers of extreme heat, and increasing trees, cooling centers and shaded bus shelters.
Climate Change and the Health of Workers. Overview of workers' vulnerability to health impacts associated with climate change, explanation of key risks and guidance for mitigating these impacts.
Using the Heat Index: A Guide for Employers. Guide that helps employers prepare and implement hot weather plans. The guide also provides appropriate protective measures to take at varying heat indexes, making it useful for local governments seeking to establish their own heat standards.
Heat Illness Prevention Campaign. Campaign to educate employers and workers on the dangers of heat, employers' responsibilities, and workers' rights.
OSHA Fact Sheet: Working Outdoors in Warm Climates. Information on the specific hazards outdoor workers face working in warm climates and how to manage them.
AirNow. (EPA) Tool that provides air quality information based on zip code, city, or state. Air quality information includes measurements of PM2.5, PM10, and ozone, as well as wildfire tracking.
Heat Safety Tool App. (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) Resource for planning outdoor work activities based on how hot it feels throughout the day. Features real-time heat index and hourly forecasts, specific to the user's location, as well as occupational safety and health recommendations from OSHA and NIOSH.
Reports and Articles
Worker Health and Safety and Climate Change in the Americas. (National Center for Biotechnology Information 2016). Article discussing current knowledge on the impact climate change has on occupational health and safety and actions that employers can take to protect workers.
Too Hot to Work. (Union of Concerned Scientists 2021). Assessment of the various threats climate change poses to outdoor workers and includes a set of recommendations.
Non-Heat Related Impacts of Climate Change on Working Populations. (Charmian M. Bennett & Anthony J. McMichael 2010). Article discussing the impact climate change has on working populations' exposure to infectious diseases, extreme weather events, stress and mental-health issues, and malnutrition.