Construction Workers at High Risk From Climate Change Impacts

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Published On
May 16, 2022

California construction workers predominantly working outside or without air conditioning are among those most prone to heat-related illnesses—particularly as climate change makes the Golden State hotter, drier and more susceptible to wildfires, according to a report released in April by the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“Affected workers face increased occupational hazards, decreased productivity, and greater likelihood of work disruptions,” the report’s authors wrote. “The adverse effects of climate change impacts can be minimized, though not eliminated, by state and employer actions that help workers adapt safely to climate change.”

Contractors might have to shift work schedules on projects to times of the day that are cooler to minimize heat stress, which can lead to heat-related illnesses and sometimes death, according to the report. Extreme temperatures can also increase the incidence of injuries and death due to workplace accidents.

“As extreme weather events become more common, employers will have to implement adaptation measures to ensure worker safety and minimize the loss in labor productivity,” the authors wrote.

While this report was written specifically for California, many points can be applied to construction workers’ health and safety throughout the United States.

While Cal/OSHA has amended some workplace standards over the past few years in reaction to heat-related deaths, the report’s authors suggest that the state’s lawmakers consider more proactive measures, including:

  • Direct Cal/OSHA to conduct a vulnerability assessment of climate change’s effects workplace safety to identify how the state’s standards should prepare for changing conditions and how equipped workplaces are to address climate change impacts.

  • Direct the state’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency to monitor how often the workers’ compensation program is used for heat‑related injuries or illnesses to identify whether more state intervention is needed.

  • Consider other mechanisms to support implementing safety upgrades and enforcing safety standards. For example, the state could encourage employers to implement adaptation strategies, such as installing air conditioning units and shifting work hours to cooler parts of the day.

  • Require Cal/OSHA to expand enforcement of safety standards by more frequently inspecting workplaces in highly impacted industries to ensure safety standards are met.

  • Direct workforce agencies to start collecting and reporting data on workforce program use among workers in specific industries and occupations with high exposure to heat, drought, inclement weather or other manifestations of climate change. Additional data could provide a clearer sense of whether existing state programs, such as unemployment insurance and workforce development programs, are equipped to address the needs of workers impacted by climate change.

“Adapting workplace standards and practices to improve worker safety as well as preparing workers to respond to the broader regional economic impacts caused by climate change will be both challenging and, in many cases, costly,” the authors wrote. “However, preemptive efforts that help workers and industries adapt to climate change impacts could bring longer‑term health benefits and be less economically disruptive for the state compared to if actions were not undertaken.”

About the Author

Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert has more than three decades of experience writing about the construction industry, and her articles have been featured in the Associated General Contractor’s Constructor magazine, the American Fence Association’s Fencepost, the...

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