Work, Sweat, Die: The Price of Really Hot Jobs

Here’s a hot topic for Labor Day: Heat.

It’s been a hell of a hot summer, exploding the top off thermometers with triple-digit readings across the country. As we’re learning, week after week of this debilitating heat intensifies wildfires, causes electric grids to fail, kills millions of wild animals (including fish!), burns up crops, and concentrates toxic air.

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But there’s another impact that draws little notice: Heat kills workers. Indeed, searing days of 95-100-110 degrees are killing and injuring more US workers each year than all the floods, hurricanes, and tornados combined. Those toiling outdoors – including farmworkers, roofers and carpenters, airport ground crews, landscapers, road and street repairers, letter carriers, and trash collectors – are in the direct line of fire for this invisible, insidious killer. But working indoors is no better if there’s no AC, for metal and stone warehouses and manufacturing plants become ovens.

Then, welcome to climate change – 20 of the last 21 years gave us the hottest temperatures on record. Unsurprisingly, the yearly number of worker heat deaths in that period doubled. Also, researchers have determined that extreme workplace heat is causing about 170,000 people a year to suffer injuries on the job. The impact of heat is poorly understood, even by workers. A sudden heat stroke is not the only worry, for rising body temperatures can quickly fuzz the mind, weaken muscles, numb concentration. So, workers fall, their hands get caught in machinery, they touch the wrong wire, etc.

America’s power elites – sitting in climate-controlled executive suites, distant legislative chambers, and comfortable editorial offices – literally don’t feel the intensity of this heat, so the richest country in the history of the world continues to subject millions of its people to senseless suffering and death, not even talking about this embarrassment, much less stopping it.

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