Climate change prompts efforts to protect workers from extreme heat

New England has been broiling in dangerous heat this past week.

It’s a particularly tough situation for workers who are outside for long stretches, or inside without any air conditioning.

Right now, no special protections are in place for workers who are subjected to extreme heat.

Climate change is prompting efforts to update safety regulations.

Firefighters face challenging circumstances in the best of circumstances. Hot temperatures make a tough job tougher.

That’s what happened in East Boston last week when temperatures went well into the 90s as a five-alarm fire sent thick plumes of smokes into the sky.

“They went thru their oxygen very fast. They were overheated quickly,” said Boston Fire Commissioner Paul Burke.

The torrid temperatures sent 9 firefighters to the hospital and required a change of tactics. “The heat has been a problem today,” added Burke. “We had to circulate firefighters in and out because the heat is so bad.

Heat isn’t just a problem for firefighters, who are often lugging around more than 50 lbs. of gear.

Landscapers, postal workers, builders, and those in retail can all be subjected to punishing conditions.

“Climate change has meant that rising temperatures are happening here in Boston, and it puts workers at risk,” said Jodi Sugerman.

Brozan, executive director at MassCOSH, which focuses on occupational safety.

She says indoor workers face threats too. “Last summer, we had a call from a group of workers who were working in a laundromat. We went to support them, and the heat index, which is the combination between heat and humidity, in that space was over 120 degrees.”

Dr. Justin Pitman, an emergency medicine physician at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, said extreme heat is incredibly stressful to the body and can lead to illnesses. He said this can run the gamut from heat exhaustion to heat stroke “and it can have devastating consequences, including being fatal.”

Last year President Biden launched an interagency effort to respond to extreme heat, including the development of workplace heat standards, and increased enforcement by OSHA.

Sugerman-Brozan thinks these actions will be very critical “because at the moment we have to rely on negotiations with unions to secure those protections, or employers that just want to do the right thing, and that can vary widely.”

Training is important according to Sugerman-Brozan. She often conducts seminars for companies. “First and foremost, understanding that rest, water, and shade are critical. Employers need to have a heat plan in place that includes training on the signs and symptoms of heat stress.”

Dr. Pitman added “employers are going to have to start taking it quite seriously because it is going to be an issue in the future.”

Dr. Pitman also said workers can be pro-active about protecting themselves.

For example, workers should try to wear sun blocking clothes that are loose fitting, make an effort to be in the shade when possible, and

Drink plenty of water. Dr. Pitman say that means about ¾ of a liter per hour when working outside and not waiting until you feel thirsty.

Several states have adopted their own worker protection measures related to heat. According to MassCOSH there is nothing similar pending in Massachusetts.

In terms of federal regulations, MassCOSH says something like this can take several years to develop and implement.

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