Linda Ressler is an aircraft cleaner at the airport in Phoenix, where the temperature reached or exceeded 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, while she was wiping a tray table, she briefly lost consciousness due to the heat.
“It clears your brain,” she said. “It slows down your cognitive function. You are overwhelmed by the heat.”
Ressler is just one of millions of workers around the world struggling in extreme temperatures. Heat waves are gripping three continents 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 robust heat wave. “Most of the time, you get headaches from 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 rest, what will they eat?”
In India, workers in the informal economy suffer under the relentless sun. “This past month, I’ve had either a fever or a body ache every other day,” a food delivery driver in Delhi said Rest of Worldindependent news site.
And in Dubai, which will host the United Nations climate change conference this year, workers are struggling to cope with oven-like conditions. “Between noon and 3:00 or 3:30 p.m., we simply cannot work,” Issam Genedi, who works in an outdoor parking lot, said Voice of America.
Experts say airport workers, like those in Phoenix, are some of the most at risk from the heat, due to the heat 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, won’t let her bring water with her while she’s at work. Instead, she drinks unopened bottles left behind by passengers if she is lucky enough to find them.
“They don’t give you a chance to recover at any point on the job,” she said of her employer, who pays her $15.76 an hour. “They don’t care if you have heat problems.”
Prospect did not respond to requests for comment.
The cooling effects of heat on the economy
This week, European cities are losing out on the highest earnings of the tourist season as attractions close, outdoor dining is abandoned and air conditioning costs rise, explained our colleague Patricia Cohen.
In the long term, the consequences of extreme heat will be dire. 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 effects.
At the individual level, workers under heat stress are more likely to suffer accidents and injure themselves or their colleagues, research shows.
Ressler said that when she’s exhausted 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 am fading, and I am unable 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 freezing gel to the caps farm workers wear to block the sun.
For employers, these can look like expensive measures. But Flouris has done the math, and says 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 be taking a deeper look at how heat affects productivity soon. Stay tuned.)
An emerging labor issue
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 drivers says so one of their top priorities makes the company work safely in extreme heat. Last month, unionized UPS workers scored a victory when the company agreed install an air conditioner in delivery trucks.
Staff at the Acropolis, the famous Greek tourist attraction, began a work stoppage today after being ordered to work in extreme heat. Gig workers are also pressing the Indian government to build shelters with toilets, drinking water and charging points to sustain them as they wait for customers in scorching heat, according to Shaik Salauddin, a union leader in Telangana state.
“The implications of this extreme heat are beyond what any of us imagined,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. Workers, she said, are “forced to do their jobs, regardless of what the weather forecast is.”
However, 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 heatstroke, former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. wrote in the Atlantic. But OSHA, he wrote, “is not likely 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 was not a priority. But today, in the midst of a lightning-fast global heat wave, they have begun to change their tune.
“It wasn’t even considered part of the agenda,” he said. “Now it’s everywhere.”
More on heat:
How to build a disaster home
The home building 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 choice: They have less surface area, making them easier to insulate and more resistant to strong winds. Steel and concrete can make houses more resistant to heat, wildfires and storms. Decks can be built from ironwood, fireproof wood.
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 remaining 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
Other climate news
Before you leave
Birds struggle to find sources of clean water in the summer heat wave. You can help them by getting a bird bath.