An Oregon State University (OSU) study found that rates of traumatic injury among employees in the agriculture and construction industries in Oregon are significantly higher during periods of extreme heat compared to periods of more temperate weather.
The findings highlight how crucial it is to offer outdoor workers strong safety safeguards, especially as climate change makes extreme heat events more frequent.
Richie Evoy, the paper’s lead author and a recent doctoral graduate from OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said, “The big take-home message I want people to get from this is that, if the temperature is high and you have workers out there, they’re more likely to be injured, whether it’s due to dehydration, a decline in mental capacity, or exhaustion.
The report, which was released earlier this month, looked at statistics on workers’ compensation in Oregon from 2009 to 2018. Nearly 92,000 injury claims including temporary disability, permanent disability, or death were examined by researchers. Because the average heat index was higher than 55 degrees from April through October, they concentrated on accidents that happened during those months.
Researchers looked into how heat and smoke from wildfires affected worker injury rates.
In order to calculate the amount of heat exposure based on the heat index, which combines the effects of temperature and humidity in the air, they compared injury records with meteorological data. They also calculated the amount of wildfire smoke exposure based on environmental satellite data.
They discovered that, relative to a baseline of 65 degrees or less, workers in the construction and agricultural industries were considerably more likely to sustain a traumatic injury on days when the heat index was above 75 degrees.
With an elevated risk of 19–29% over baseline as the heat index ranged from 90–119 degrees, the effect grew stronger when the temperature surpassed 90 degrees.
Laurel Kincl, the co-author of the study and an associate professor at OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said, “These results highlight the necessity for occupational safety practitioners to include precautions for workers during excessive heat.” Despite the fact that our study was conducted in Oregon, similar conditions are expected to occur in other states and regions as a result of climate change.
Smoke from wildfires had an unclear effect. When researchers examined smoke on its own, they found that it was significantly connected with a higher risk of injury. However, when they included data on the heat index in their analysis, the effect of smoke from wildfires was no longer significant.
According to studies, there are numerous possible causes behind this. The smoke may be related to the heat because wildfires occur more frequently in hot weather, but smoke can also occasionally cover the sun and lower ambient temperature.
To properly understand the potential impact, experts emphasised that future studies should gather more detailed data on smoke exposure. Evoy claimed that due to shifting winds and changes in what was burning at any given time, they were unable to precisely determine how much wildfire smoke specific workers were exposed to or what was in that smoke when using satellite imagery and data recorded from each day’s peak smoke exposure by zip code.
The more we can do to understand the risks to our outdoor workers who will be experiencing these climate effects first, the better off those workers will be in protecting their health and remaining productive, said Evoy.
“The way things stand now, wildfires are only going to increase in frequency and duration in Oregon and in the West, so the more we can do to understand the risks to our outdoor workers who will be experiencing these climate effects first, the better off those workers will be,” he added.
Oregon’s office of occupational safety and health only recently issued new guidelines for wildfire and severe heat stress. The rule now mandates that employers give employees access to shaded places when the heat index rises beyond 80 degrees, as well as drinking water, a set work-rest schedule, and other safety precautions. The state of Oregon is being sued by a coalition of business organisations over these new regulations, which were welcomed by labour unions.
Perry Hystad and Harold Bae, both from the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, were additional co-authors on the OSU study.
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