In the United States, extreme heat causes the deaths of about 700 people every year. Some studies approximate over thousands of deaths per year. This makes heat the leading cause of climate-related deaths in the country, claiming more lives than hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes combined. Of course, official counts of heat wave victims fail to accurately represent the actual toll. Despite this alarming statistic, the urgency of preventing extreme heat has not been widely recognized. The state fails to adequately inform the public and implement effective measures to address extreme heat as a critical public health concern. As a result, workers are left vulnerable, reliant on the mercy of their employers.
The focus of the state on serving the interests of profitable groups has prevented workers from receiving necessary protections from the heat, such as ensuring universal access to air conditioning. Shockingly, nearly one in ten households in the US lacks air conditioning, forcing many individuals to dig deep into their pockets to install new units or replace outdated ones, or else risk the health consequences if they cannot afford the price. Tragically, workers pay the ultimate price, as evidenced by UPS workers subjected to sweltering conditions in the back of their trucks to uphold billion-dollar profits. Astonishingly, the recent deal brokered between UPS and the Teamsters Union—a deal which is now being hailed as a “historic win” for the workers—mandates that these same workers continue enduring these perilous circumstances. As stated in the agreement, employees will only be provided with fans by the start of 2024. While fans are an effective cooling measure within certain temperatures and humidity limits, if the temperature is higher than that of the human body, then they make things worse. This is because they act like the fan in air ovens, blowing hot air, heating people, instead of cooling them.
Further, the state has never truly acknowledged the essential requirement for publicly accessible air-conditioned spaces within urban areas. This negligence is compounded by poor urban planning that worsens extreme temperatures and provides dangerously few shaded green spaces in cities. Poor urban planning leads to the absorption and retention of heat because of the dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces. This causes what is known as the “urban heat island effect”which increases energy costs, air pollution, and the risks of heat related mortality. This effect increases the demand for air conditioning. Heat islands include the cities Chicago and Atlanta. In the US, 80% of the population lives in cities thus thousands are left without air conditioning facing the major public health threat of heat islands. The provision of billions of dollars in subsidies to monopolies is a slap in the face to the families struggling to find relief from the heat.
During the past summer, temperatures in the US reached record levels, in line with global trends. Cities like Phoenix, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Austin, and many more have broken records well above 100 degrees. This punishing heat wave has tragically claimed dozens of lives and led to a surge in hospitalizations,.
The optimal temperature for the human body is approximately 98.6°F. When the body overheats and experiences dehydration, the blood thickens, causing strain to the heart and other organs. To prevent this, our bodies have built-in mechanisms to regulate temperature, namely sweating. However, if the combination of heat and humidity becomes excessive, sweating might not be enough, potentially leading to heat exhaustion, a condition that can manifest as nausea, muscle cramps, and dizziness. In severe instances, it can escalate to heatstroke, characterized by hot and dry skin, confusion, and even loss of consciousness, which can be fatal.
To some extent, humans can adapt to higher temperatures over time. If an individual resides in a hot region, or labors in high-temperature environments, for several weeks or months, their body can acclimate, becoming more proficient at sweating and naturally cooling down. Nevertheless, this adjustment process takes time, and when sudden heat waves strike areas where people are not accustomed to such extreme heat, it can be extremely dangerous. Specific segments of the population, such as children, elders, and people with heart, respiratory, or kidney conditions, are particularly vulnerable. There are also certain medications, such as diuretics or beta-blockers, that have the effect of reducing sweat production, so those who depend on them may have to choose between suffering high heat or high blood pressure.
Outdoor workers, especially those in agriculture and construction, frequently encounter hazardous heat levels for a substantial portion of their workday. Dehydration poses a significant risk, and field workers face an increased chance of kidney failure. Athletes, professional or otherwise, are similarly susceptible, given the considerable heat their bodies generate during intense physical exertion. It is crucial that workers are able to cease work under such extreme conditions without the concern of wage loss—crucial for survival, that is, if not for capital.
Temperatures are projected to continue rising, thrusting the families and working people into an open-air oven. Under the guise of “customer service,” “competitiveness,” and the various demands of “economic momentum,” workers will be forced to continue toiling in this inferno until enough have succumbed to start affecting profits. For the employer, profit remains the ultimate goal. The interests of workers—which include survival—and the demands of capital cannot be reconciled. Social dialogue with the employers must be rejected. It is only social struggle that can overcome the antagonism between labor and capital. Despite warnings, formal announcements, and well-wishes, substantial measures to protect the health and lives of the workers and people will never be taken so long as they remain at the mercy of the employer. Only the organized power of classist unions, of the workers themselves, in every workplace, in every neighborhood can make these measures a reality, can bring an end to the prioritization of profits over life.
- Climate and Health Outlook: Extreme Heat https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/climate-health-outlook-june-2022.pdf
- Extreme Heat Is Deadlier Than Hurricanes, Floods and Tornadoes Combined https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/extreme-heat-is-deadlier-than-hurricanes-floods-and-tornadoes-combined/
- Record heat waves illuminate plight of poorest Americans who suffer without air conditioning https://apnews.com/article/heat-wave-low-income-race-death-air-conditioning-f897e336d6d99ee2a53024f42ad7b8b5
- Changes to the Contract Teamsters Mobilize. https://teamstersmobilize.com
- Reduce Urban Heat Island Effect https://www.epa.gov/green-infrastructure/reduce-urban-heat-island-effect#:~:text=%22Urban%20heat%20islands%22%20occur%20when,heat%2Drelated%20illness%20and%20mortality
- Emergency room visits surge, Texans die amid dangerous heat wave https://www.texastribune.org/2023/06/30/texas-heat-wave-deaths-illness/
- ‘Silent killer’: experts warn of record US deaths from extreme heat https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/aug/01/heat-related-deaths-us-temperatures-heatwave