Quantifying the impact of future extreme heat on the outdoor work sector in the United States

Author: Rachel Licker, Kristina Dahl, John T. Abatzoglou

Year: 2021

Published in: Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene (2022) 10 (1): 00048.

Outdoor workers perform critical societal functions, often despite higher-than-average on-the-job risks and below-average pay. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of days when it is too hot to safely work outdoors, compounding risks to workers and placing new stressors on the personal, local, state, and federal economies that depend on them. After quantifying the number of outdoor workers in the contiguous United States and their median earnings, we couple heat-based work reduction recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with an analysis of hourly weather station data to develop novel algorithms for calculating the annual number of unsafe workdays due to extreme heat. We apply these algorithms to projections of the frequency of extreme heat days to quantify the exposure of the outdoor workforce to extreme heat and the associated earnings at risk under different emissions scenarios and, for the first time, different adaptation measures. With a trajectory of modest greenhouse gas emissions reductions, outdoor worker exposure to extreme heat would triple that of the late 20th-century baseline by mid-century, and earnings at risk would reach an estimated $39.3 billion annually. By the late century with that same trajectory, exposure would increase four-fold compared to the baseline with an estimated $49.2 billion in annual earnings at risk. Losses are considerably higher with a limited-mitigation trajectory. While universal adoption of 2 specific adaptation measures in conjunction could reduce mid-century and late-century economic risks by roughly 90% and 93%, respectively, practical limitations to their adoption suggest that emissions mitigation policies will be critical for ensuring the well-being and livelihoods of outdoor workers in a warming climate.