Climate takes a toll on worker health: An employer call to action 

Climate takes a toll on worker health: An employer call to action
August 17, 2023
Far-reaching climate-related health challenges this summer are taking a toll on workers’ physical and mental health. Of course, the heartbreaking loss of life and property from the fires in Hawaii is first and foremost on our minds right now. At the same time, heat and humidity resulting in consecutive days of dangerously high – often triple-digit – “feels like” temperatures continue to hit areas across the country.

Wildfire disaster response

Employers with operations or workers in areas that have been or may be affected by wildfires have critical work to do to safeguard their employees and their businesses right now.

We have written about how you can prepare in advance for climate disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes and also how to support your people after disaster strikes. Don’t underestimate how much your help means, whether it is extra financial support, mental health support, time-off flexibility, or working with plan vendors to make sure employees and family members can quickly get replacement medications, eyeglasses or contact lenses or other related medical supplies and support.

Constant communication from leadership is key not only to those who have been affected, but to co-workers watching the news from afar. Knowing that your employer has found a way to contribute can be greatly reassuring. Consider organizing ways for employees to help as well.

Dealing with extreme heat

Enduring many days of triple-digit temperatures is challenging for everyone. Older adults, people with certain medical conditions, and pregnant women are at higher risk in extreme heat. Even younger people – athletes and students returning to school – are at an elevated risk due to increased heat exposure. Young children and some teenagers can be more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses because their bodies are less adaptable to warmer temperatures and warm up faster than adults.

Precautions can be taken to minimize the health risks of extreme heat. The CDC Heat and Health Tracker provides local heat and health information that employers can use to prepare for and respond to extreme heat events. Outdoor workers should have access to plenty of water, a place to cool off and, if possible, work schedules shifted to cooler hours. Research has found that as temperatures pass 90 degrees, worker productivity can decline by 25%. Above 100 degrees, productivity collapses even more dramatically, by 70%.

But even if your employees work indoors, commuting may be a challenge, especially for those using public transportation. You may want to encourage those who can safely work from home to do so, or consider treating extreme heat days as something akin to a snow day. Another thing to keep in mind is that some individuals may not have air conditioning, especially in areas of the country where – historically – summers have been relatively mild, like the Pacific Northwest. Employers may want to offer employees and family members access to break rooms, conference rooms, or cafeterias before or after shifts or on the weekends.

Targeted communications to employees can build awareness and help keep them safe from the extreme heat. Work with your health plan and EAP to get the word out, or pass along public information such as this: Warning Signs and Symptoms of Heat-Related Illness.

Understanding future impact

While dealing with the immediate impact of climate events on employees, employers also need to evaluate the long-term effect on their business. The healthcare costs associated with wildfire air pollution can dwarf economic damages. Mortality and morbidity costs due to exposure to fine-particulate air pollution from wildfires in the US are estimated to be between $11 billion and $20 billion a year for short-term exposures, and $76 billion to $130 billion a year for long term exposures. For extreme heat, the toll is harder to tally due to variations in how services are coded for heat-related health conditions.

Employers can use CDC data from the Heat and Health Tracker to identify days in their locations where temperatures were above 100 and match it to emergency room visits and hospitalizations in their own claims data, and even to disability and workers comp data. The White House announced a new tracking tool for heat-related illness run by the Department of Health and Human Services in partnership with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which may also be helpful in assessing impact over time as data accumulates.

These types of studies will be retrospective but could provide important information to use in planning for the future. One lesson of this challenging summer has been that when it comes to climate change, the future is closer than you think.