On July 19, 2023, a powerful tornado ripped through Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Among the damage was an important Pfizer pharmaceutical plant that produces 25% of all sterile injectable medications used in U.S. hospitals, according to a CBS News report. Though no one was injured, the damage could cause long-term medicine shortages for hospital systems.
This incident is just one example of the way weather can affect the healthcare industry. But aside from impacting the supply chain, weather and climate change also impact our well-being. Hurricanes can leach toxic chemicals into floodwaters, wildfires can cause respiratory disorders, and extreme heat can lead to a variety of illnesses. On top of all that, lack of internet or electricity can make reaching injured workers challenging and may delay courses of treatment.
The World Health Organization describes climate change as “the biggest health threat facing humanity” – and weather-related disasters are on the rise. Last year, 18 distinct billion-dollar weather events hit communities around the world, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Compare that to an average of 13.1 events per year in the 2010s and just 6.7 in the 2000s.
While everyone is affected by climate change, it’s often those on the front lines who feel it the most – those who work outdoors, in hot indoor environments, or in emergency response. Let’s look at the ways different weather events can impact workers and the workers’ compensation industry.
Severe Storms and Flooding
Severe storms make up 49.2% of the billion-dollar weather events to affect the United States from 1980 to 2023, with tropical cyclones (i.e., hurricanes and tropical storms) making up an additional 16.7%. These weather events bring a variety of safety risks for response and cleanup workers, including physical, chemical, ergonomic, biologic, radiologic, psychological, and behavioral health hazards.
Tropical cyclones, high winds, and heavy rain often lead to flooding, which makes up 11.4% of the billion-dollar weather events and brings its own risks for workers. These include infectious diseases, electrocution, falls, chemical exposures, physical hazards, poisoning, and biological hazards.
And the health effects of tropical cyclones are not always immediate. The Columbia Mailman School of Public Health cites a landmark study revealing that tropical cyclones were associated with up to 33.4% higher death rates from several major causes in subsequent months after the event. These causes include injuries, infectious and parasitic diseases, respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and neuropsychiatric conditions.
Extreme heat is becoming a more common occurrence. Drought makes up 8.3% of the billion-dollar weather events from 1980 to 2023, with associated deaths being the result of heat waves. What’s more, in July 2023, Earth warmed to the highest average temperature ever recorded for four days in a row, according to an ABC News report. And, Climate.gov notes the 10 warmest years in the historical record have all occurred since 2010.
For outdoor workers who may experience temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during their workday – or even indoor workers who lack adequate air conditioning – heat stress is a real risk. Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness and can cause permanent disability or death. It occurs when the body’s temperature rises rapidly, and the body is unable to cool down because the sweating mechanism fails.
In workers’ compensation, heat-related illnesses are prevalent. A study by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs compared records from more than 11 million California workers’ comp claims from 2001 to 2018. Results show that workers have a 6% to 9% higher risk of injuries on days with high temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit than they do on days with highs in the 50s or 60s. When temperatures top 100, the risk of injuries increases by 10% to 15%.
According to WorkersCompensation.com, climate change is becoming a bargaining chip for union workers who work outside. For instance, UPS recently reached a tentative agreement with its workers to air-condition its big box trucks by 2024. And CBS News reports that Texas Congressman Greg Casar is pushing for adoption of federal standards to require rest and water breaks for people who work in the heat, as well as training to deal with heat-related illness.
Wildfires make up only 5.8% of the billion-dollar weather events from 1980 to 2023, but they remain top of mind as the Canadian wildfires continue to burn at a record-setting pace. Air quality is at dangerously unhealthy levels throughout the United States, and workers who perform jobs outdoors are particularly vulnerable. Even employees working from home in the affected areas are at risk.
The Centers for Disease Control lists the health effects of wildfire smoke as eye irritation, sore throat, wheeze, and cough; asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) exacerbations; bronchitis and pneumonia; adverse birth outcomes; and cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) outcomes. In addition to smoke inhalation, wildfire-related injuries include burnovers/entrapments, heat-related illnesses and injuries, vehicle-related injuries, and slips, trips, and falls.
The Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, within the U.S. Department of Labor, receives approximately 2,600 workers’ compensation claims annually from federal firefighters. Of those, about 175 are complex occupational disease claims that include conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and lung disease. Because research shows that firefighters are at increased risk of these conditions, the Department of Labor announced a new policy in April 2022 that eases the evidentiary requirements needed to support these claims – essentially offering an expedited way for injured workers to get support.
Climate Change: An Ongoing Problem
Climate change isn’t going away. In fact, the World Health Organization predicts that between 2030 and 2050, it’s expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year worldwide from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress. And it’s safe to say that workers will unfortunately be among those killed or injured. What can be done? The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that both employers and employees take steps to reduce the health impacts of climate change. These include keeping cool and staying hydrating, checking outdoor air quality, and improving indoor air quality, among others.