Extreme heat could cost N.J.’s outdoor workers $2.2B in lost earnings, researchers warn

By: - September 7, 2021 6:55 am

The state has recovered 61% of the 717,200 jobs lost during the pandemic. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

With many still recovering from Hurricane Ida and the seven twisters it spawned in New Jersey last week, the summer’s sweltering heat might seem like a distant discomfort.

But a new report warns extreme heat could cost up to $2.2 billion in lost earnings for New Jersey’s outdoor workers by the end of the century, if lawmakers don’t act soon to control climate change.

The report from the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates extreme heat could cause tens of millions of outdoor workers nationally to lose a collective $55.4 billion in earnings each year by midcentury, without action to limit emissions.

The report defines outdoor workers as those who work in seven fields: protective services like police and firefighters; transportation; farming, fishing, and forestry; construction and extraction; installation, maintenance, and repair; building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; and materials moving. Extreme heat is when the heat index climbs above 100 degrees, a point at which the CDC recommends reducing outdoor work hours.

Outdoor workers in the U.S. face up to 35 times higher a risk of dying from heat exposure than the general population, according to the study. As climate change makes extreme heat more frequent and intense, outdoor work will become more dangerous, the study says.

Disproportionate racial impact

There will be a racial impact, according to the report. Because Black and Latino  workers are disproportionately represented in many outdoor occupations, the projected earnings losses could worsen existing inequities in health outcomes, poverty rates, and economic mobility, the report says.

“Today, despite decades of consistent calls for greater on-the-job protections, many outdoor workers face economic and legal systems that discount their lives and safety,” researchers wrote. “If we fail to act or act too slowly to limit future warming, the next generation of outdoor workers could spend the prime years of their working lives toiling in heat that compromises their health and their livelihoods.”

The report recommends lowering emissions by investing more in clean electricity, energy efficiency, zero-emission vehicles, mass transit, electrification of buildings, and more.

It urges federal lawmakers to protect workers by passing the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Prevention Act, which would set mandatory heat health protective standards for workers.

It encourages states to require employers to implement heat-safety plans.

One local environmental advocate applauded researchers for showing the personal impact climate change will have.

“A lot of people think climate change is a far-off issue, and this report articulates the real-life tangible impact that they might not think about,” said Henry Gajda, policy director with the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

New Jersey’s dense development and overabundance of impervious surfaces cause a heat island effect that increases extreme heat, Gajda added.

A recent study by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection found the state is warming faster than other Northeast states and heat waves will become more common and frequent.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.