Industry Partnerships Create Policy Tools to Protect Outdoor Laborers in Extreme Heat

Korey Stringer Institute CEO Douglas Casa has worked with industry partners to develop heat safety policies that will protect workers who work in extreme heat

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Over the July 4th holiday, Earth’s average temperature broke unofficial records, reaching highs not seen in decades, possibly centuries.

The planet’s temperatures reached an average of 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday, July 3. The record was broken on Tuesday, and again on Wednesday and Thursday. This data comes from the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer, which climate scientists use to gain insights about the globe’s climate.

Climate scientists predict that temperatures will continue rising this summer, which has already had several severe heat waves.

During the last few weeks of June, south-central parts of the United States saw temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more, prompting the National Weather Service to issue an excessive heat warning for affected states. The heat wave sparked a public health emergency in Texas, where according to media reports, at least 13 people died from the heat, including two outdoor workers, and thousands more received emergency medical care.

In Phoenix, temperatures reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit or more for over 29 consecutive days in July, according to media reports.

In the U.S., heat is the leading cause of weather-related fatalities. As extreme high temperatures become more common, outdoor workers and those working in hot indoor environments have a higher risk for heat-related injuries such as exertional heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat rash,  and heat syncope, among others. Workers who are 65 years or older, are overweight or obese, physically inactive, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or take certain medications have a greater risk of heat stress or exertional heat stroke and heat-induced cardiac events. It can also worsen health conditions like asthma, kidney failure, and heart disease.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 436 work-related fatalities due to environmental heat exposure from 2011 to 2021. During that period, an average of 39.6 workers died each year during that period because of exposure to extreme heat.

Image of Douglas Casa
Douglas Casa, CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Kinesiology

“This number is severely underreported as extreme heat can also cause cardiac events, kidney injury, and increase accidents” says Douglas Casa, CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute. “These numbers will progressively get worse as climate change increases the frequency, duration, and intensity of heat waves.”

These extreme heat events have become more frequent and intense because of human-caused climate change. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached 424 parts per million this May, demonstrating that carbon dioxide levels are 50% higher than they were prior to the beginning of the industrial era. With the rising rates of CO2, the average near-surface global temperature is projected to increase more than 2.7°C (34.7°F) above pre-industrial levels in the next five years.

Nearly all heat-related injuries are preventable with education, training, and policies that protect workers from the heat.

There is no federal regulation protecting workers from heat-related illness. In October 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced they would begin the process of creating a federal heat stress standard to create occupational heat safety protections, but the process could take years.

While OSHA may enforce the “general duty clause” of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to provide a workplace that is free of hazards that would cause “death or serious physical harm” to employees, the clause has been challenged in court and is difficult to enforce as it lacks specific exposure thresholds. OSHA has also launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP) to increase inspection of workplaces for heat-related hazards in high-risk industries. However, this NEP is focused on industries in local areas where the National Weather Service has issued a heat warning or advisory. This program may not evaluate industries where high heat exposure is present with the combination of environmental heat, high physical exertion, and/or personal protective equipment. This is very common in occupational settings. This combined heat stress further emphasizes the need for a federal standard that would establish conditions under which employees are required to stop working.

With heat safety standards lagging at the federal level, it is up to states and employers to keep workers safe in hot conditions. Only five states have heat rules that cover outdoor or indoor workers: California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, and Colorado, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In recent years, UConn’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) has supported industry partnerships to develop tools and new strategies to improve human health.

Working with UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute (KSI), InCHIP has provided key grants management services to facilitate collaborations companies including Delta Airlines, Mission, Sentinel, Milwaukee Tool, Magid, and UPS.

Led by Douglas Casa, KSI chief executive officer, principal investigator at InCHIP, and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Kinesiology in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, KSI has developed heat safety practices and employee education resources for these companies. Casa’s research mainly focuses on exertional heat stroke, heat-related illnesses, preventing sudden death during physical activity, and hydration. While at KSI’s helm, Casa has prioritized research, education, advocacy, and consultation to improve safety and prevent death for athletes, military personnel, and laborers.

In 2020, KSI hosted a virtual roundtable on best practices for occupational heat stress mitigation strategies. It included 51 experts from around the world in disciplines related to occupational health and thermal physiology. The roundtable resulted in a consensus document that provided evidence-based recommendations to enhance heat safety in the workplace. Key occupational heat safety stakeholders continue to reference the document to protect employees.

Casa began working with Delta Airlines this summer to develop the company’s written heat policy and heat stress management program, which will consist of heat safety practices and heat safety education, as well as an action plan for exertional heat stroke and other medical emergencies.

As part of its efforts to improve heat safety for employees, United Parcel Service (UPS) contracted KSI to review the company’s heat safety plans, procedures, documents, heat safety training, and the company’s online heat stress learning platform.

KSI previously partnered with the Gatorade Sports Science Institute and MISSION, a performance cooling and heat-relief clothing company to develop UPS’ new health and safety program Recharge. UPS is also incorporating heat-safety science in its annual heat awareness training.

In addition to consulting with companies on their heat policies, Casa also partners with companies to test the effects of new heat products. KSI has done extensive work testing new heat mitigation products for companies.

Casa is also working with MISSION on two productivity cooling studies, one of which was a first-of-its-kind study that compared a myriad of heat mitigation strategies and quantified the impact on cognitive and physical performance, and safety. The study simulated outdoor work environments and has direct applications for the labor force.

MISSION is a long-time partner of KSI. In 2021, KSI partnered with MISSION and Magid, a personal protective equipment manufacturer to establish the Heat Safety and Performance Coalition (HSPC).

Image of Margaret Morrissey-Basler
Margaret Morrissey-Basler, President of Occupational Safety at the Korey Stringer Institute

“HSPS is a division of KSI that is entirely focused on protecting workers from heat-related injuries and illnesses,” says Margaret Morrissey-Basler, President of Occupational Safety at the Korey Stringer Institute. “We recognized that there was a large gap in research and educational initiatives related to occupational heat safety and we made it our mission to address this gap.”

The HSPC is comprised of an expansive network of experts committed to improving occupational worker health and safety, working with industry and policy partners to develop better heat safety standards, like hydration, body cooling, and work-to-rest ratios.

As temperatures increase year-after-year and action to create federal and state heat safety regulations for laborers lags, collaborations between industry and research institutes have become increasingly valuable as entities seek reliable, evidence-based solutions.