Extreme heat threatens workers and the US economy.

Irma Gómez has worked in the plantations of the central valley of California for almost a decade and has never experienced a year as hot as this one, when a colleague collapsed while picking leaves and died.

"Worry, it could happen to any of us"says Gómez, who on this fall day wears a mask to protect himself from the smoke of forest fires, a dense ocher haze that covers the sky.

Rising temperatures increasingly threaten workers in the United States, putting their health and performance at risk. And that phenomenon has great economic consequences, according to two recent studies on the subject.

The country already loses about $ 100 billion annually due to declining productivity from the heat, indicates a report from the Resilience Center of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation, a think tank based in Washington DC.

If no action is taken to curb global warming, losses will reach $ 200 billion in 2030 and $ 500 billion in 2050, the study notes.

"When you are slower and need breaks to drink cold drinks and shelter in the shade, you produce less", summarizes Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Center for Resilience.

The pockets of workers are also affected by climate change.

"In many sectors such as agriculture, employees are paid by the hour or by the piece"explains Kristina Dahl, co-author of a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an NGO specializing in issues such as global warming. "If those workers take breaks and are not compensated for it, that has implications for their economic well-being.".

Gomez, 37, feels it on his skin: "This year there has been less work due to the heat".

Not being able to do eight-hour shifts, this summer Gomez received $ 1,700 per month, 700 less than in the same period last year. For her, the difference is equal to one month’s rent.

"Thousands of injuries"

With a summer that registered heat records in some regions of the country, the breaks in the days have become more frequent.

And the situation is going to get worse, warns the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Three million workers in the United States suffer at least one working week each year with temperatures above 37.7 ° C, in which the heat puts them at risk.

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If current weather patterns continue, by mid-century, some 18.4 million people will work for more than a week in these extreme conditions, which means more breaks to protect their health.

"Everyone, regardless of the job they have, will notice the effects of this drop in productivity"says Dahl. Those people "they plant and harvest our food, deliver our packages, maintain our buildings, roads and bridges".

Working in high heat slows down movement. It causes tiredness, confusion, fainting and, in the most severe cases, a rise in body temperature can be fatal.

"We estimate that, in California alone, high temperatures may be causing thousands of workplace injuries annually"warns economist Jisung Park, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Protect the worker

The two studies agree that the priority is to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the rise in temperatures.

But, waiting to get it, they advocate caring for workers. "This boils down to giving them three things: water, shade and rest."Dahl notes.

"Heat kills more Americans than any other weather phenomenon"recalls Baughman McLeod.

Both specialists see a need for a federal law that provides, in addition to protective measures, that breaks are paid.

"The goal is that workers do not have to choose between their health and their wages"says Dahl.

In September, the White House announced that it will study a regulation to protect workers, but the process takes time.

California, Minnesota and Washington are the only states in the country with regulations in this regard. On very hot days, companies are obliged to offer workers water and shade. And in case of extreme temperatures, they must completely stop the work.

In the field, an alternative to avoid this is for workers to harvest at night or at dawn. But that poses other challenges for them.

Gómez, for example, loses days when he cannot find someone to take care of his youngest daughter at dawn.

Now she is relieved to be past the summer temperatures, but fears for the future: "It’s worrying, we don’t know what next year will be like".


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