How Extreme Heat Affects Workers and the Economy


Linda Ressler is an airplane cabin cleaner at the airport in Phoenix, where the temperature has reached or surpassed 110 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 days in a row and counting.

Ressler, 57, works the overnight shift inside planes where the air conditioning is off and nighttime temperatures regularly approach 100 degrees. This week, as she was wiping down a tray table, she briefly lost consciousness from the heat.

“It drains your brain,” she said. “It slows your cognitive function. You’re overwhelmed by the heat.”

Ressler is just one of millions of workers around the world struggling under extreme temperatures. Heat waves are gripping three continents right now, just after Earth recorded what scientists said were likely its hottest days in modern history.

At least two workers collapsed and died last week in Italy, which is at the epicenter of Europe’s searing heat wave. “Most of the time, you have headaches because of the heat,” Naveed Khan, a food delivery cyclist in Milan, told my colleague Emma Bubola. “If you have a proper job, you can take a break in the heat. If I take a break, what will they eat?”

In India, workers in the informal economy are suffering under the unrelenting sun. “This past month, I have had either fever or body ache every other day,” a food delivery driver in Delhi told Rest of World, an independent news site.

And in Dubai, which will host the United Nations climate change conference this year, workers are struggling to cope with furnace-like conditions. “Between noon and 3 p.m. or 3:30 p.m., we simply cannot work,” Issam Genedi, who works in an outdoor car park, told Voice of America.

Experts say airport workers, like those in Phoenix, are some of the most at risk from heat, because of the heat-intensifying effects of asphalt and the need to wear bulky protective gear. At the airport there, Ressler struggles to stay hydrated. Her employer, Prospect Airport Services, does not let her bring water with her while she works. Instead, she drinks unopened bottles that passengers left behind, if she is lucky enough to find them.

“They don’t give you a chance to recuperate at any point during the job,” she said of her employer, who pays her $15.76 an hour. “They don’t care if you have heat issues.”

Prospect did not reply to requests for comment.

This week, European cities are losing out on peak tourist season earnings as attractions close, outdoor dining is abandoned and air conditioning costs rise, our colleague Patricia Cohen explained.

Over the long term, the consequences of extreme heat will be tremendous. Studies estimate that extreme heat can cause trillions of dollars in losses to the global economy by reducing productivity, damaging crops and increasing mortality, among other impacts.

At the individual level, workers under heat stress are more likely to suffer accidents and hurt themselves or their colleagues, research shows.

Ressler said that when she is flagging from exhaustion after hours of cleaning airplane cabins, she feels guilty for not having the energy to get the job done.

“It’s embarrassing because it’s not in my character,” she said. “I’m fading, and I’m not able to produce work.”

Andreas Flouris, a professor at the University of Thessaly in Greece, has studied how heat affects productivity and solutions that can help. What works for farm workers won’t necessarily do the same for people on the factory floor, he said. But one important step all employers can take is to allow workers “to take breaks when they feel they need to,” he added. “Our brain tells us to slow down when we’re not feeling well.”

Other solutions include rearranging shifts to avoid working when it’s hottest, providing plenty of water and building more shaded areas. They could also be as simple as changing the color of an airport worker’s dark uniform, which absorbs heat, or adding frozen gel to the caps farm workers wear to block the sun.

To employers, these may look like costly measures. But Flouris has done the math, and says that investments to protect workers will pay for themselves in the form of increased productivity.

“When you support workers, they actually produce a lot more,” he said.

(Our colleagues on the Climate desk will have a deeper look at how heat affects productivity soon. Stay tuned.)

As temperatures rise and workers around the world struggle through the summer, heat is increasingly becoming an issue for labor organizers.

In Southern California, a group of 84 striking Amazon delivery workers say that one of their top priorities is getting the company to make it safe to work in extreme heat. Last month, unionized UPS workers won a victory when the company agreed to install air conditioning in delivery trucks.

Staff at the Acropolis, the famed Greek tourist attraction, began a work stoppage today after being told to work in extreme heat. Gig workers are also pressuring the Indian government to build shelters with toilets, drinking water and charging points to support them while they wait for customers under scorching heat, according to Shaik Salauddin, a union leader in the state of Telangana.

“The implications of this extreme heat are beyond what any of us have imagined,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. Workers, she said, are “forced to perform their jobs, regardless of what the weather forecast is.”

Still, very few countries in the world have regulations to protect workers from extreme heat.

In the United States, only a few states have rules in place. (Texas, on the other hand, just passed a law that strips some workers of their right to take water breaks.)

The Biden administration is working to create federal worker protections against heat, a former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wrote in The Atlantic. But OSHA, he wrote, is “unlikely to require these basic protections any time soon.”

Flouris said that, for years, politicians told him that enacting regulations to protect workers in extreme heat wasn’t a priority. But today, in the midst of a blistering global heat wave, they have begun to change their tune.

“It was not even considered a part of the agenda,” he said. “Now it’s everywhere.”

More on heat:

The homebuilding industry has been slow to adopt changes that can protect against extreme weather. But some architects are showing what’s possible, my colleague Chris Flavelle reports.

Domes are one unorthodox option: They have less surface area, making them easier to insulate and more resistant to high winds. Steel and concrete can make houses more resilient to heat, wildfire and storms. Decks can be built from ironwood, a fire-resistant lumber.

Building a resilient home can cost about 10 percent more than conventional construction. But those who can invest often make their money back by spending less on heating, cooling and repairs.

Chris interviewed Joel Veazey, whose geodesic home was one of the few left standing after Hurricane Rita devastated his small community in southwest Louisiana in 2005.

“We made fun of you because of the way your house looks,” Veazey remembers his neighbors saying after the storm. “We should never have done that. This place is still here, when our homes are gone.” — Manuela Andreoni



Birds are struggling to find sources of clean water in the summer heat wave. You can help them out by getting a birdbath.



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