While some politicians continue to split hairs over the cause of climate change and scientists debate on the best solution, workers who make a living working in the elements are increasingly experiencing first-hand the impacts of weather-related work injuries.
Here in Arizona, high temperatures, sun exposure and heatwaves are the biggest threat, particularly in the long summer where highs often reach triple digits. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are serious public health risks, particularly among workers who must be outside such as in agriculture, landscaping and construction.
In Mohave Valley, Arizona—along the California border—local news reported dozens of people admitted to area hospitals for heat-related conditions after another scorching heatwave that drove up temperatures above 120 degrees.
According to Kyle Murray, an emergency room physician at Western Arizona Regional Medical Center in Bullhead City:
“We have been seeing five to ten heat-related cases per day. It seems to be most prevalent in the older population and those who are exposed to the severe heat for long periods of time, such as landscapers and construction workers.”
And this was just the first week of summer. Cases will undoubtedly continue to rise throughout the season.
In addition to heat, other causes of weather-related occupational hazards include smoke from the increasing severity and duration of wildfires in the West, severe storms, pollution and dust clouds.
How to prevent weather-related work injuries
In order to ensure that all outside workers in Arizona—and around the country—are kept safe while performing essential duties, employers and workers alike must do a better job at recognizing, addressing and understanding the dangers they face. We must also advocate for better workplace safety.
Three ways that healthcare professionals, in particular, can address (and hopefully help to prevent) these occupational hazards include:
- Advocating for policies that will protect workers
- Better education across all sectors about occupation-related climate concerns
- Better identification of illnesses and/or injuries caused by severe weather
Healthcare professionals have a key role to play
Why are healthcare providers important to prevent weather-related workplace injuries?
Having healthcare professionals at the forefront of addressing how climate change and severe weather affects workers isn’t a new concept; however, progress toward making any real change has been slow. In fact, the needs of workers are often overlooked amidst often politically charged dialogues about public health and climate.
That said, healthcare professionals are increasingly seeing more patients for health conditions related to weather-related accidents and heat stress. Those who are most likely to notice these conditions are those working in occupational medicine and infectious disease; however, it’s important that all healthcare professionals are able to recognize the signs of weather-related hazards outdoor workers can and are facing at an alarming rate.
Another hurdle to overcome is income level. Often, lower-income individuals—who may not seek prompt medical treatment due to the larger financial barrier they face for specialty care—are hit more severely.
As the ones treating those coming in with occupational illnesses and injuries like heat exhaustion and heatstroke, physicians and medical staff are in the best position to notice trends that are emerging in their communities. For example, physicians have begun to notice a rise in cases of air pollution-induced asthma and cardiac arrests during heatwaves.
Since there has yet to be any kind of full-scale health study done, there’s a lack of standardized data on the subject. Furthermore, hospitals and doctor’s offices rarely ask their patients about their job. This means there’s little to no data to link the 2 factors together. If healthcare centers would start including occupational history into their medical questions, it could help track emerging trends better.
Workers’ compensation and weather-related injuries in Arizona
While it’s encouraging that more focus is going to the sometimes brutal working conditions outdoor workers face, it doesn’t change the fact that they still face many challenges while working outside. Regardless of the season, the climate of Arizona can present serious dangers to those who work outside.
If you are injured by the weather during the course of your employment in Arizona, the good news is that most weather-related injuries and illnesses are covered by workers’ compensation. The catch is that you may be required to prove a strong connection between your illness/injury, your work activities and the weather.
Moreover, if an occupational disease is involved (such as heat-induced heart attack or smoke-related asthma), you may have to prove that it wasn’t caused by any external factor that is unrelated to your work activities.
Common weather-related work injuries
Most of Arizona has a semiarid or arid desert climate where there can be extreme weather conditions and temperature fluctuations. In the summer, parts of the state see over 120 days where the temperature exceeds 100°F.
With such exposure to extreme heat, it should come as no shock that the most common weather-related injuries in Arizona include:
- Heat cramps
- Heat exhaustion
- Heat rash
Winters in Arizona pose different threats to outdoor workers.
In fact, from 2010 to 2018, the Arizona Department of Health Services recorded 3,000 cold weather-related trips to Arizona emergency rooms. Of these, 430 people died due to cold-weather exposure.
Common cold-weather-related injuries include:
- Trench foot
Filing an Arizona workers’ comp claim in Arizona
Workers’ compensation can sometimes be a complex process that is deceptively difficult to navigate, seemingly designed to trip up injured workers. By focusing on these 5 steps, you can protect your right to workers’ compensation benefits:
- Step 1. Get immediate medical attention. This should be your top priority as your health and safety are paramount.
- Step 2. After receiving emergency treatment, report your injury to your supervisor in writing. This will start the claims process.
- Step 3. Write down the details of your incident as soon as possible to ensure that you don’t forget any details. Recall and record the following:
- Time and date of the incident (Be exact!)
- Location of where the injury/incident occurred
- Body parts injured
- A brief, but detailed statement of how the injury occurred
- Step 4. File a “Workers Report of Injury” form with the Industrial Commission of Arizona. (If your employer doesn’t provide this form to you, you can download it here.)
- Step 5. Consult with a workers’ comp attorney near you before accepting a settlement offer.
While you may or may not receive a substantial amount of money from your claim depending on the severity of your injury, you should expect to have ALL of your medical bills covered completely. You’ll also likely receive a percentage of any wages you lost to receive treatment and/or recover.