By John Salak –
Working outdoors may sound like a great job, especially for those not fond of being at a desk all day. In many ways, they’re right. But working in the wide-open can present challenges, especially in Southwestern cities like Las Vegas where summer temperatures rise higher each year.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 1,300 people may die annually in the U.S. from extreme heat conditions or heat stroke. Admittedly, not all these people are in outdoor occupations, and overall numbers of heat-related deaths and nonfatal injuries increased, a possible result of rising temperatures associated with climate change.
The danger isn’t limited to death either. Anyone who spends time outdoors in hot and humid conditions, such as construction workers, landscapers, and farmers, faces potential health issues. According to The CDC, these issues include heat stress that results in heatstroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat rashes. The dangers also affect injuries from sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses and dizziness.
What may be more startling is that not all outside workers are at the same risk. According to Nevada’s Desert Research Institute, women and more-experienced outdoor workers are more likely to suffer from heat-related risks than men or less-experienced employees.
They examined how outdoor workers fared in three of North America’s hottest cities: Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix. The study specifically examined the number of occupational injuries and illnesses related to heat index data for these cities over seven years.
“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 lead author Erick Bandala, an assistant research professor at the research institute. “Surprisingly, this type of analysis hadn’t been done in the past, and there are some really interesting social implications to what we learned.”
The data revealed that rising temperatures are occurring alongside an increase in nonfatal occupational injuries across these three states. In addition, the study discovered a startling rise in the percentage of female workers experiencing heat-related injuries as the study progressed. In 2011, women accounted for 26 to 50 percent of injuries across three states. Seven years later, those levels rose to 42 to 86 percent.
There are two reasons for the increase, including the growing number of women working outdoors. Women may be more vulnerable to heat-related effects, like hyponatremia, which develops when someone drinks too much plain water in hot temperatures, and sodium levels in the blood get too low.
The authors also discovered that employees with longer service times working outdoor were more likely to be at greater risk of heat-related injuries. Researchers theorized that this could be due to multiple factors, including more experienced workers having a reduced perception of heat risk and the cumulative effect of years of chronic heat exposure.
They noted that heat-related illness or injury can cause extensive damage to all tissues and organs, disrupting the central nervous system, blood-clotting mechanisms, and liver and kidney functions. In these cases, the required recovery is lengthy.
“These lengthy recovery times are a significant problem for workers and their families, many of whom are living day-to-day,” Bandala said. “When we have these extreme heat conditions coming every year and a lot of people working outside, we need to know what are the consequences of these problems, and we need the people to know about the risk so that they take proper precautions.”
Employers also need to recognize the needs of different workers, according to Dr. Kebret Kebede, the study’s co-author and an associate professor at Nevada State College.
“As the number of female workers exposed to extreme temperatures increases, there is an increasing need to consider the effect of gender and use different approaches to recommend prevention measures as hormonal factors and cycles that can be exacerbated during exposure to extreme heat,” Kebede advised.
The CDC warns that workers and employers should know the consequences of outdoor occupations and institute proper safety precautions. This includes limiting time outdoors, training supervisors on the related risk of working in extreme heat, providing cold water and developing plans to acclimate employees to working outdoors.