North Texas summers are getting hotter. That puts outdoor workers at risk

Experts say outdoor workers need to stay hydrated, wear protective clothing and use the “buddy system” on the job to keep an eye out for heat-related illness.

By Stella M. Chávez, KERA NewsAugust 11, 2023 9:30 am, ,

From KERA News:

Cristian Mejia has noticed a worrying trend over the decade he’s spent working in construction.

“The climate has been changing every year. The sun, the temperature is hotter.” he said. “This year, we have felt it a lot.”

Mejia, 32, is part of a crew building a new Chick-fil-A off Interstate 35 in Waxahachie. Every day, he and his teammates are at work by 3 a.m. They start early to stay safe.

Mejia said he’s gotten used to the hours.

“Working overnight isn’t very difficult because there isn’t any sun,” he said. “There may be some humidity and you might sweat, but we work better at that hour than in the middle of the day.”

Climate change is making summers hotter. The last eight years have been the warmest years on record according to the World Meteorological Organization. That puts outdoor workers like Mejia at risk of developing a heat-related illness, like heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

The U.S. doesn’t have national safety standards to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat. And earlier this year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law HB 2127, which blocks cities and counties from implementing local worker protections such as mandatory water breaks.

Between 2010 and 2020, at least 384 workers died from heat exposure, according to an investigation by NPR, The Texas Newsroom, The California Newsroom, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Public Health Watch. In Texas, at least 53 workers died from heat-related illnesses during that same period. The analysis of federal data also revealed that the three-year average of worker heat deaths had doubled since the early 1990s.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

Construction works cover up from the excessive heat while working Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Dallas.

Local hospitals say they’ve seen this trend continue. Parkland Health in Dallas, for example, has seen 50% more cases of heat-related illnesses this summer than this time last year, according to Chief Medical Officer Joseph Chang.

He said dangerously hot weather requires planning. For example, hydrating before going outside is critical.

“I always tell people, fill your tank before you go out there,” he said. “When you’re out there, if you already have an empty tank in terms of liquid in your body and then you sweated it all out, it’s like you’re going from empty to even emptier and it’s really hard to catch up.”

Workers should also know what to do while they’re working outside, like having plenty of water and electrolytes on hand. They should also wear proper protective clothing, like long-sleeved shirts and a hat.

“People ignore the hat a lot,” Chang said. “People feel like, ‘Wow, gosh, I’ve got another piece of clothing on my head. It’s going to make me more hot,’ when in fact actually the opposite is true.”

Chang said a large bucket hat is perfect for working outside because the head is where people lose most of their moisture and that can make a person more dehydrated.

Finally, he said workers should have a plan for when they’re back home. It’s not enough to drink plenty of water. People should also replenish the electrolytes they lost to sweat. That means drinking something like Gatorade or Powerade, which contain electrolytes.

Bethany Boggess Alcauter, director of research and public health programs at The National Center for Farmworker Health, strongly recommends using the buddy system. Workers should look out for each other as they toil in the sun and pay attention to symptoms of heat illness, such as dizziness, weakness, nausea and confusion.

The organization staffs a telephone helpline that agricultural workers can call with health-related concerns. Recently, she heard about workers in South Texas who didn’t have water.

“In that particular instance, according to our colleagues, they were being punished for not finishing all the water in the water bottles,” she said. “So they took away their drinking water.”

Boggess Alcauter said that’s an extreme example, but access to water is a problem.

“Typically, the issue we see on farms and in construction is just that the water is too far away and people can’t stop to go get it, so that’s the bigger issue with not having drinking water.”

About a mile down the road from Cristian Mejia’s crew, another group of workers was busy clearing the right-of-way for a natural gas project. He and his co-workers started their workday at 7 a.m.

Vincent Hall, who oversees the workers, said he doesn’t underestimate the heat.

“I’ve been doing this for the last seven years and every year it gets hotter and hotter,” he said.

He said he reminds his workers to take rest breaks, at least 20 minutes every three to four hours.

“Believe me, the sun will let you know. Your body will shut down any time,” he said. “You could be just standing here working and then all of a sudden, you know, you feel like you’re going down.”

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