How Climate Change Threatens Outdoor Workers

Published Aug 17, 2021

Climate scientist Dr. Rachel Licker discusses how climate change will affect outdoor worker’s health and earnings.

In this episode

Colleen and Rachel discuss:

  • the dangerous health effects of working outdoors in extreme heat
  • which occupations will be most at risk as climate change increases hot weather
  • what it will mean for outdoor worker's earnings as the temperature becomes too hot to work
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:25)
Intro (0:25-2:18)
Interview p1 (2:18-11:27)
Break (11:27-12:45)
Interview p2 (12:45-20:11)
Throw (20:11-20:32)
Segment (20:32-24:59)
Promo (24:59-27:14)
Outro (27:14-28:30)


Segment: Maegan Ramirez
Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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Full transcript

Colleen: Time for a morbid pop quiz: what weather phenomenon kills the most people in the US every year?

If you’re yelling your answer at your phone right now… well, I’m sorry, but I can’t hear you. But if you guessed hurricanes… you’re wrong.





Did you guess extreme heat? You’re right. More of us in the US die from heat-related illnesses each year… than from natural disasters like earthquakes or tornadoes.

Heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke can affect anyone, and these are serious and potentially deadly conditions. I keep this in mind whenever I’m outside during super-hot weather. But usually, being outside gardening, or walking around, or socializing is my choice, and I can always retreat back indoors. But as our climate warms and extreme heat events increase in length and duration… what happens to those who need to be outdoors to earn a paycheck—because it’s where their job is? People who work on farms, as first responders, landscapers, or doing construction. How do they stay safe when their jobs require them to be outside regardless of the weather?

I’m sorry to say that after talking to senior climate scientist Rachel Licker, I’ve learned that… they don’t. Our nation’s outdoor workers are not safe during extreme heat events.

Rachel joined me to explain just how unprotected our workers are… how more protections could benefit everyone with outdoor jobs as the climate warms… and what’s at stake when folks have to choose between earning a paycheck, and risking their health and safety.

Colleen: Rachel, welcome to the podcast.

Rachel: Thank you so much for having me.

Colleen: So you're one of the authors of a recent report called, "Too Hot to Work: Assessing the Threats Climate Change Poses to Outdoor Workers". So we know the planet is warming. The 10 hottest years recorded have all happened since 2005. And this report looks at how extreme weather will affect outdoor workers. So when I think of outdoor workers, my mind goes to agricultural workers, landscapers. Is that who you're referring to in the report?

Rachel: Yes. So we looked at seven different occupational categories: buildings and ground cleaning and maintenance workers. Workers employed in construction and extraction jobs. Farming, fishing, and forestry, installation, maintenance and repair, in addition to materials moving, protective service, and transportation. And so what that means in terms of the specific jobs is that we looked at, for example, in construction and extraction, those were people who are construction workers who are out building homes for protective service. Those are the people who are going out, emergency workers, people who are first responders, for buildings and ground cleaning and maintenance, you know, those would be landscapers, for example. So exactly, it's covering those kinds of occupations that require at least some level of outdoor work.

Colleen: Why did you take on this analysis?

Rachel: Well, outdoor workers are among the people most exposed to extreme heat in our country. And we did work previously, our Killer Heat report, that showed that even with deep reductions in heat trapping emissions, the frequency of extreme heat is poised to rise steeply over the next 30 to 40 years. that's within the lifetime, within our lifetime, of many people who are starting out their careers. And while some people will be able to escape that kind of heat through indoor air conditioning, outdoor workers are unable to and are often forced to choose between their safety, their health and a paycheck. So we really wanted to understand what is at risk for these people? And furthermore, we know that outdoor workers are disproportionately people who identify as people of color. And so we wanted to highlight not just how climate change threatens an important part of our population, and the critical work that they do, but also how it stands to worsen already existing racial and ethnic inequalities.

Colleen: How did you design the analysis and what data did you look at?

Rachel: We started off with the data from our previous report, "Killer Heat in the United States" and that gives us data on how the heat index or, "Feels like" temperature is likely to change across the 21st century at a really fine resolution under a few different global warming scenarios. If we take no action on climate change, if we take some action at a slow pace, and if we are able to take rapid action and meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And so what we did was we coupled those data with data on outdoor workers at the county level from the census, and the census gives us numbers on the number of people employed in different occupations, as well as their median earnings. So we combined it with guidance from the Center for Disease Control on how work schedules should be adjusted as heat and humidity increase and looked at the amount of earnings that would be at risk. As well as the number of workdays that we'd be at risk in an average year if employers followed the CDC guidance to keep outdoor workers safe.

Colleen: So what are the key findings then?

Rachel: Well, we found that failing to reduce heat trapping emissions would result in millions of outdoor workers being increasingly exposed to dangerous levels of heat. So for example, if we don't act on climate change, outdoor workers exposure to extreme heat would quadruple over the next few decades, which would risk $55.4 billion in outdoor worker earnings across the country. We also found that the amount of outdoor worker earnings at risk are expected to grow in the second half of the century as well if we don't act on climate change. But we found that meeting the Paris Agreement temperature goals of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius, over pre-industrial levels would limit the amount of earnings at risk and spare millions of workers from the threats of heat exposure. We also found that Black, African American, Hispanic and Latino people who hold more than 40% of outdoor jobs, despite comprising less than 1/3 of our population, would bear the brunt of these changes and the earnings and workdays at risk.

Colleen: So you mentioned $55.4 billion in earnings. Did you break that down in the analysis to help us understand what that means for individual workers?

Rachel: Yes, we did. So we look at the amount of earnings at risk for average workers in different occupations. We look at the amount of earnings at risk in different locations. So we have a lot of different ways to kind of understand what that means for people in different places in different jobs, and be able to have a holistic picture. So for example, we found that the average outdoor worker in the United States at mid century, if we don't take action on climate change, would risk losing more than $1,700 in earnings each year due to extreme heat. Though the workers in the 10 hardest hit counties would risk losing nearly $7,000 per year on average. Again, that's by mid century. And that's assuming that their employers are, you know, adjusting their work schedules based on CDC guidance.

And the other thing that I want to note here is in terms of why their earnings would be at risk. At the national level, we don't have mandatory protections for workers to stay safe in the face of extreme heat. So as I mentioned before, outdoor workers often are put in a position of having to choose between their health and safety and a paycheck. They're not guaranteed work breaks. They're not guaranteed access to shade, access to enough drinking water, access to all the things that they need to stay safe. And so they're not guaranteed that if it's too hot to work that they're going to be compensated and be given the health and safety and also financial protection to be well.

Colleen: do we know if the majority of these workers if they don't work, they don't get paid?

Rachel: We know that there are many workers around the country who have to work when it's extremely hot. You know, with the Pacific Northwest heatwave, there are instances of outdoor workers dying on the job because it was so hot. And they were not, given breaks, and they were not given the opportunity to not work. And so, you know, for them, they didn't have the luxury to not show up to work. they were put in a dangerous situation and there are recorded deaths as a result.

Colleen: What are some of the ways that employers and government officials can help to keep workers safe?

Rachel: There are lots of different things. So we need to really be taking action on two different fronts. So the first would be taking aggressive action on climate change so that we limit the rise in extreme heat days. And we need to be protecting workers from heat illness from injury and death as a result of extreme heat days that are already occurring and are likely to occur. So first and foremost, we need to make sure that it's mandatory for employers to afford workers protection. So a way to do that would be for Congress to enact the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021. And this act is actually named in remembrance of a California farm worker who died from preventable heat stroke after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in triple digit temperatures. And what this bill would do is it would require the setting of a heat health protective standard for workers that would be enforceable by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA. In only two states, currently, California, Washington had those kind of standards in place. So that standard would save lives.

Colleen: How can outdoor workers adapt to increasing hot weather?

Rachel: In our analysis, we looked at the number of workdays at risk because of extreme heat as well as the amount of earnings at risk, as I mentioned before. But what we also did was we looked at what could happen if adaptation measures are implemented. And so we looked at how the earnings and workdays at risk would change if we lightened workloads and if work hours are shifted to cooler parts of the days. And we found that workers could stay safe and continue to work most days if their schedules were adjusted to coincide with cooler hours and their workloads were reduced to lighter levels.

So coupling these strategies would ensure that most workers would lose fewer than seven days of work per year on average by mid century. So not nothing but far less than it would be otherwise. But we do want to caution that there are practical limits, of course, to how much workloads and schedules can be adapted, and also working night shifts and atypical schedules can have a lot of other negative repercussions for outdoor workers. So it's really critical that taking aggressive action on climate change be front and center of what we're trying to do to keep outdoor workers safe in addition to these adaptation measures.

Colleen: What did you see as you looked at different areas across the country and where workers are more likely to be clustered? Rachel: Well, we found that workers in Florida and Texas would be exposed to some of the most frequent extreme heat and as a result, would experience some of the greatest losses and safe workdays and earnings. So for example, by mid century without climate action in Texas, outdoor workers risk losing 27 work days in an average year due to extreme heat and that's up from five days annually, historically. And the average outdoor worker in that state risk losing about $3,500 in annual earnings due to extreme heat, again, that's by mid century. In Florida, outdoor workers would risk losing 33 days in an average year due to extreme heat up from five days historically, and translated into earnings that would put outdoor workers in Florida at risk of losing about $3,700 in annual earnings due to extreme heat. And that translates into a significant chunk of earnings, and the annual income for a lot of these outdoor workers.

Colleen: We know that we have a lot of immigrant workers that come to the US that are working in agricultural fields. I'm assuming that they are more vulnerable because they don't have the same protections that US citizens have. Did the report look at that population?

Rachel: To some extent, undocumented workers are included. However, we know that they are under-represented in these kinds of datasets. So certainly the results are conservative for undocumented workers. What we do know is that certainly undocumented workers have a lot of unique vulnerabilities to these kinds of issues. For example, there's a lot of fear of legal repercussions, so they would be less likely to report work related injuries. there's just not the same transparency and accountability so they do have a really unique set of vulnerabilities. And it's really critical that information on how to keep outdoor workers safe is provided in different languages so that if you have people speaking languages besides English, that they're able to access that information, and employers are able to communicate in a way that can keep them safe. We also know that access to quality health care is an issue in this population as well. And that's a really critical aspect of keeping those workers safe if a heat related illness does occur.

Colleen: Are there currently safeguards in place that keep outdoor workers safe in extreme heat?

Rachel: At the federal level, there are no mandatory measures. There are guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA. There are two states, California and Washington, that have mandatory standards. But by and large, most outdoor workers work in areas where there are no mandatory protections.

Colleen: How did the pandemic play into your decision to do this analysis?

Rachel: Well, the COVID pandemic really put a spotlight on worker conditions. We saw that essential workers had to show up and choose between, again, their health, their safety and a paycheck. It showed the division sort of in who could work and stay in safe conditions and how those fall oftentimes across different racial and ethnic lines, and different economic lines. And it really showed that there are a lot of different workers, outdoor workers included, who are both deemed essential and are not afforded protections to keep them safe. and we see this happening with outdoor work as well during these extreme heat waves where people are still going out and picking our food and harvesting it and they're considered essential but then they're not given protections. They're not given assurances of their paychecks being protected. [00:15:00] If they can't work because it's too hot, there are all these different ways that they're both taken for granted and quite frankly, exploited.

Colleen: it sounds like there's a sort of two-pronged solution here. Adaptation is one of the things that hopefully, many outdoor workers can do but as you just mentioned, there are challenges to that. But also, we really need to reduce global warming emissions. What are you focused on in the reducing global warming emissions area?

Rachel: Well, yeah, exactly. We really need to be ramping down emissions. We need to be taking aggressive action on climate change to limit how bad this problem can get. And so the way we can do that is really meeting the primary goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. The United States must make robust contributions to global climate action, and at a minimum, reduce heat trapping emissions by 50 to 52% by 2030, and achieve net zero emissions no later than 2050. So we need to really have policies and investments that advance clean electricity, energy efficiency, zero emission vehicles, public transit, electrification of buildings, and industrial processes, and also healthy soils and forests. And all of this can help create jobs and jumpstart economic recovery, while lowering emissions and delivering public health benefits. So these are solutions that can benefit outdoor workers, prevent heat from getting bad, and also have all of these other positive benefits for society. So win-win-wins across the board.

Colleen: Great. Well, Rachel, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast. It's been great talking to you.

Rachel: Yeah, it's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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