Extreme heat can be dangerous for outdoor workers, study finds

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Consumers living and working in the hottest parts of the country are at the highest risk for heat-borne illnesses

A new study conducted by researchers from the Desert Research Institute explored the potential health risks that outdoor workers face in extreme heat.

According to their findings, working outdoors in extremely high temperatures makes consumers more susceptible to heat stress, heat illnesses, and overall discomfort. 

“We expected to see a correlation between high temperatures and people getting sick – and we found that there was a very clear trend in most cases,” said researcher Erick Bandala, Ph.D. “Surprisingly, this type of analysis hadn’t been done in the past, and there are some really interesting social implications to what we learned.” 

High temperatures affect health outcomes

The researchers focused their study on three of the hottest cities in the U.S. – Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. The team compared the heat indices across the three cities from 2011 through 2018 with workplace injuries and heat-related illnesses. Demographic information was taken into consideration in the study, as was how long the participants had been at their jobs. 

The researchers learned that the heat index in Las Vegas and Phoenix started at “extreme caution” when the study began and had escalated to “danger” by the end of the study. The rising temperatures were linked with an increase in injuries and heat-related illnesses for outdoor workers in these cities.

In 2011, the number of cases of heat-related illnesses and workplace injuries for outdoor workers was below the national average; by 2018, those numbers were well above the national average. 

“Our data indicate that the increases in heat are happening alongside increases in the number of nonfatal occupational injuries across these three states,” said Dr. Bandala. “Every year we are seeing increased heat waves and higher temperatures, and all of the people who work outside in the streets or in gardens or agriculture are exposed to this.” 

Women may be more at risk 

The researchers also identified two important factors that could impact the risk of heat-borne illnesses for outdoor workers – gender and time spent on the job. The study showed that women went from making up as much as 50% of the heat-related illnesses and injuries in 2011 to comprising more than 85% of such illnesses and injuries in 2018. 

Participants who spent more time in their outdoor jobs were also more likely to be negatively affected by the heat. The researchers learned that participants who had spent more than five years in their roles were much more likely to struggle in the heat than those with less than one year under their belts. 

These findings are a cause for concern for all outdoor workers across the country, as these health issues can keep consumers out of work for a month or more. The researchers say more serious health concerns could develop among these workers, including damage to the liver and kidneys, disruptions to the central nervous system, and issues with blood clotting. 

“As temperatures continue to rise and heat-related illnesses and deaths continue to rise, the need for public policies to alleviate health and economic impacts is growing,” Dr. Bandala said. “I hope to continue doing research on this problem so that we can have a better understanding of the impacts of extreme heat and how to help the people who are most vulnerable.”

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