The impacts of regularly working outdoors are continuing to evolve.
By Alexandra Walsh
Workers who spend a lot of time outdoors may be disproportionately affected by climate variations more so than the general population. Climate-related impacts may also make existing health and safety issues even worse and lead to new hazards.
For example, most people might decide to stay indoors during a heat wave, but some workers have no choice. They must be outside to do their jobs, some work environments are hard to modify, work cannot stop but must continue, and job tasks must be completed despite whatever changes occur in climate or weather.
Historically, no comprehensive means of identifying occupational safety and health hazards from climate change existed. To better characterize and understand the relationship between climate change and worker health and safety, scientists developed a framework that identified seven categories of climate hazards:
- Increased ambient temperatures
- Air pollution
- Ultraviolet exposure
- Extreme weather
- Vector-borne diseases and expanded habitats
- Industrial transitions and emerging industries
- Changes in building environments.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is of the opinion workers will likely be exposed to more than one of these hazards, while at the same time or various times, a number of these effects will probably occur.
The framework was updated in 2016 and additional topics related to occupational health and safety were considered—such as mental health effects on workers and economic burdens on employers associated with hiring, retaining, and keeping workers productive in hotter temperatures.
The first four climate hazards on the original list above will have the greatest impact on workers in the groundwater industry, so let’s explore them in greater detail.
Increased Ambient Temperatures
Many workers spend their entire workday in hot environments, which it should be noted can be indoors as well as outside. These conditions may become hotter because of higher temperatures, more frequent extreme heat events (heat waves), and shifting and expanding hot seasons.
For many workers, being exposed to heat and humidity at work may be more hazardous than people in the surrounding community are exposed to. This is because workers generally have less control of exposures in their work activities.
Heat stress is a major hazard for many workplaces, including water well drilling sites. Water well workers often work outdoors through the hottest months. They work jobs that likewise require intense physical activity even during heat waves and other times of extreme heat.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published in 2016 an updated guidance document, Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments. This document, along with recognizing heat continues to cause heat-related deaths, illnesses, and injuries in working populations, has led to a major push in the United States for a federally mandated occupational heat standard.
Currently, there is no OSHA federal heat standard requiring employers to abide by defined rules for heat safety at their workplaces. A few state OSHA programs, such as Cal/OSHA, have implemented heat standards for employers.
Additional state OSHA programs in Oregon and Washington recognized increasingly extreme temperatures being experienced by workers and created temporary or emergency heat standards in 2021. Also, that year, OSHA announced plans to launch a rulemaking process to develop a workplace heat standard.
Research has linked air pollution to acute, short-term health effects (coughing and eye irritation) and chronic, long-term health effects (heart disease, respiratory diseases, and allergy disorders). Studies have shown air pollutants like ground level ozone and particulate matter affect respiratory health.
Workplace exposure to environmental air pollution varies depending on:
- Worksite location
- Weather conditions
- Outdoor air quality
- Frequency of wildfires.
Conventional workplace measures to prevent workers being exposed to air pollution (e.g., ventilation) don’t always apply in an outdoor environment. Plus, employers and workers may have no control over sources of air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.
Still, some measures can be taken to protect workers outdoors from ambient air pollution. Reducing the time workers spend outdoors, rotating workers, or restricting work during times of severe air pollution are some. Others would involve using a respiratory protection program, conducting medical surveillance and reporting cases affected by heat, and supporting the development of air quality standards.
Airnow.gov is an important website and tool that should be used by groundwater contracting businesses. It shows current and forecasted air quality index information by zip code. It also has air quality action day alerts for your location.
Information is also available on particulate matter pollution at www.epa.gov/pm-pollution.
Ultraviolet rays are a part of sunlight that is an invisible form of radiation. Complex interactions among greenhouse gases, climate, and atmospheric conditions such as decrease in the ozone layer have increased UV radiation in recent years. Overexposure to UV radiation can result in skin cancer, eye damage, and immune suppression.
UV rays can penetrate and change the structure of skin cells. There are three types of UV rays, named alphabetically as UVA, UVB, and UVC.
UVA is the most abundant source of solar radiation at the Earth’s surface and penetrates beyond the top layer of human skin. Scientists believe UVA radiation can cause damage to connective tissue and increase a person’s risk for developing skin cancer. UVB rays penetrate less deeply into skin but can still cause some forms of skin cancer. Natural UVC rays do not pose a risk to workers because they are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere.
Sunlight exposure is highest during the summer and between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Working outdoors during these times increases the chances of getting sunburned. Snow and light-colored sand reflect UV light and increase the risk of sunburn too.
At worksites with these conditions, UV rays may reach workers’ exposed skin from both above and below. Workers are at risk of UV radiation even on cloudy days.
Many drugs increase sensitivity to sunlight and the risk of getting sunburn. Some common ones include diuretics, tetracycline, sulfa antibiotics, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.
There are specific measures employers and outdoor workers can take to lessen exposures, including the use of sunscreens and sun-protective clothing.
Certain recommendations for sun-protective clothing may be at odds with choosing appropriate clothing for working in the heat. After all, wearing shirts or jackets with long sleeves, dark versus light colors, and fabrics with a tight weave might not seem right when working in sunlight. So, to what extent these are worn will depend on how employers and workers look at it and are motivated or directed to do so.
Extreme weather events or natural disasters including floods, landslides, storms, lightning, droughts, and wildfires are noticeably increasing. These events contribute to injuries, diseases, and stress on workers in occupations exposed to hazardous weather.
Workers involved in drilling wells are exposed to all kinds of hazardous conditions both during and after extreme weather events.
Protecting workers against weather on a larger scale will depend on governments and businesses. On a smaller scale of workers and employers, the amount of risk will depend on how each responds to risk.
The primary responsibility for controlling weather hazards falls on employers. One major type of response is adaptation, such as hardening physical infrastructure, relocating people and equipment, and ensuring backup capacity. These adaptations may have an impact on workers who must perform tasks in extreme weather conditions.
Beyond adaptation, employers and workers need training in preventative practices. Both should be included in developing and implementing weather and climate planning that affects worker safety.
McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm that offers research and advice on critical economic and business matters, in 2020 issued a report on 105 countries that concluded:
“While companies and communities have been adapting to reduce climate risk, the pace and scale of adaptation are likely to need to significantly increase to manage rising levels of physical climate risk.”
Variations in temperature, precipitation, wind, or other types of weather have the potential to affect worker health and safety more and more.
Employers must play a role in protecting workers from such climate-related hazards.
Research and other information related to the occupational impacts of climate can be used for creating risk management programs and to develop policies.