In much of the world, summer is always hot, but the sustained temperatures we’ve seen in recent months surpass all precedent.
This July was officially the hottest month on record, and these rising temperatures and heat domes are only expected to become more frequent over the coming decades.
On Aug. 28, the Biden-Harris Administration announced nearly $3 billion in project selections to help communities across the nation build resilience to climate change and extreme weather events, like extreme heat receiving Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program funding for the first time.
Extreme heat kills more people annually than hurricanes, tornadoes and floods combined, yet due to current regulations, FEMA is not able to treat sweltering conditions as a declared state of emergency or natural disaster.
In response, several U.S. representatives introduced bipartisan legislation this summer to change this restriction, and recently, the Department of Labor issued a Hazard Alert for Heat for the first time in history. As these unprecedented heat levels continue to create hazardous work environments across the country, federal agencies must also decide how they will address severe heat.
Heat-related illnesses are preventable, but top-down support in federal agencies is essential in putting heat safety policies and heat stress management plans in place.
Federal agencies must act now to make their employees’ health a top priority by educating their employees on symptoms and self care and adapting their workplaces and policies to account for these hazardous conditions.
Certain sectors of federal workers are at even greater than average risk of heat-related injuries. For instance, military, law enforcement, firefighters, shipyard or maintenance, construction or inspection, surveyors and postal workers are all in positions that require long and difficult hours – often labor-intensive and outdoors wearing heavy personal protective equipment.
In 2021 alone, there were 488 incident cases of heat stroke and 1,864 incident cases of heat exhaustion among active component service members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
I saw the severe impacts of heat stroke first-hand while serving as a medical care provider in the U.S. Navy. In one case, I treated a servicemember who was admitted into the Intensive Care Unit, narrowly avoiding a liver transplant. Even after recovery, he was ultimately retired from active duty because of the long-term risk of working in elevated temperatures.
As in this case, the effects of heat exposure can be life-altering, which is why federal agencies must take mitigation seriously. The federal government must instill a safe, people-first approach to preserve the health of federal workers and service members and save lives.
Beyond the armed forces, first responders and other outdoor federal workers, traditional office workers’ health is at risk too. According to a recent study, extreme heat takes a toll on mental productivity and cognition and increases absenteeism, even among indoor workers.
In an indoor workspace, thermal control is important. If too hot, employees could feel fatigued or irritated; if too cold, their attention can drift more easily. It is important for agencies to create healthy indoor environments with proper ventilation systems and low toxicity materials to improve air quality which can lead to a happier and more productive workforce.
In addition, many federal workers live and work in large urban environments like Washington, D.C. where a high density of buildings, paved roads and parking lots absorb and retain heat and offer little relief.
Federal employers need to ensure their employees know the signs and symptoms of heat stroke and other related illnesses long before they or a colleague find themselves in a dangerous scenario. Agencies should develop support programs to educate all employees about the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion, such as weakening of muscles, nausea, cramping, disorientation and slurred speech.
This information should be paired with a workplace culture where safety is paramount and staff members feel a shared responsibility for not only their personal well being, but that of their colleagues as well.
Preparing a written heat illness plan before extreme conditions even occur is recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Agencies should appoint a daily on-site supervisor dedicated to monitoring conditions and implementing the established heat plan throughout the workday. With the proper training, the supervisor can better identify and control heat hazards, recognize early symptoms of heat stress, administer first aid and activate the emergency service plan when needed.
Knowledge and resources for how to counter symptoms when they emerge are another necessary element of a robust heat stress management plan. For instance, federal agencies should ensure that workers have easy access to drinking water, cool and shaded spaces to rest and enough built-in breaks, especially if they are working outside during peak heat.
Some agencies may also consider adjusting hours and offering flexible work schedules for employees susceptible to dangerous heat exposure. Employers should also determine which workers are at greater risk by evaluating factors such as age, pregnancy and pre-existing health conditions, and take the extra steps to make sure high-risk employees have every resource they need.
In addition, federal employers must take steps to help minimize the risk of overexposure and heat exhaustion well before these symptoms ever manifest. Agencies can look to other sectors with practice monitoring the factors that contribute to heat-induced issues.
For instance, the military uses a Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) device to measure environmental conditions such as ambient temperature and relative humidity to ensure safe activity levels and adequate breaks. Other government agencies can use this and similar monitoring tools to determine work to rest ratios, water breaks, the type of equipment or clothing worn, and more so workers can avoid heat-induced health crises.
The rise in temperatures doesn’t only impact employee health. For federal agencies – and the U.S. economy at large – the effects can be equally damaging. The International Labour Organization estimates that increased heat stress could result in a productivity decline equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs by the year 2030. In addition, serious injury or illness can lead to workers’ compensation losses and additional costs for overtime, training and recruiting. A recent report found the U.S. loses an average of $100 billion annually from heat-induced declines in labor productivity.
Keeping employees safe and productive during hazardous heat conditions requires a proactive and preventative approach. As excessive heat levels continue to plague our world, federal agencies must make changes to adapt their workplace and prepare their workers for the future. Employers have an obligation to keep their federal workforce safe from harm.
Even after they have developed and implemented a safety plan, federal agencies should continue to track the effectiveness of their heat-health strategy over time and make adjustments where needed. With more sweltering summers anticipated in the decades to come, making these changes today will benefit workers now and well into the future.
Dr. Tifani Gleeson is the chief medical officer at Sedgwick Government Solutions. Prior to this role, Gleeson served in numerous leadership positions in the U.S. Navy, including as associate director of the occupational and environmental medicine residency program, Uniformed Services University.