In the run up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, I wrote a story, with support from the Pulitzer Center, about how the region’s high heat conditions were impacting the thousands of migrant workers brought in to build the global sporting event’s infrastructure. Several media organizations had covered the plight of the Gulf’s migrant construction workers in depth between the awarding of the rights to host the event, and the event itself, but my focus was on heat protection measures for workers during the summer months when temperatures often surpassed human tolerance. If the Gulf offered a preview of what the rest of the world is likely to experience if climate change continues unabated, what lessons could we learn about protecting workers in a hotter world?
In 2018, partly due to negative media coverage over the country’s treatment of migrant workers in the run-up to the world cup, Qatar enacted one of the most, if not the most, progressive heat protection policies for outdoor laborers in the world. During the summer, worksites shut down during the hottest parts of the day. And if temperatures exceeded a certain point considered deleterious to human health, outdoor work was banned, no matter the time of day. The government mandated that employers offer workers regular breaks in the shade, and that they must maintain a source of cool water within easy access to all employees. Water, rest, shade: It was such an easy solution to a problem that is increasingly widespread.
In many cases, the negative media coverage of Qatar’s mistreatment of its migrant workforce was justified. But the more I dug into my reporting about heat, labor, and climate change, the more I realized that labor conditions in the countries that were producing much of that negative press were not doing much better, and in many cases, were actually much worse. So I decided to look into the issue of heat and labor in my own country, the United States, which has no federal heat protection standards at all, and only a smattering of state-level laws.
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I decided to focus on Georgia, which has no heat protection laws at all, and for local context and understanding, I partnered with radio reporters at Georgia Public Broadcasting as well as a Spanish-language publication for migrant workers called Qué Pasa?, published in Macon. Our reporting on outdoor labor in Georgia took place during the hottest summer the United States has ever seen. Over the course of my research, farmhands, delivery drivers, postal workers, and powerline repair specialists succumbed to heat stroke and even death on the job due to heat.
Our team, which included Sofi Gratas and Grant Blankenship from GPB, as well as Atlanta-based photographer José Ibarra Rizo, identified a dozen outdoor jobs most impacted by heat, then canvassed local organizations, friends, and contacts to find workers willing to let us spend a day with them on the job to get a real feel of what it is like to be out working in near-inhuman conditions. To better understand the physical impact of high heat, as well as the mitigating effects of rest, water, and shade when available, we worked with a Boston-based company called Epicore Biosystems. The biotech company has developed a wearable patch that can monitor and track activity, skin temperature, and dehydration levels over the course of a day by analyzing sweat droplets. Our volunteers wore these patches throughout their workdays, giving us valuable data about how the heat was affecting their health and work.
It wasn’t always easy. One worker, employed to maintain roadside vegetation in Macon, was sweating so much that the adhesive bandage meant to keep the tracking patch in place kept slipping off. Sometimes we were not able to upload the data due to a software glitch. But overall we were able to glean good insight, especially into the differences between those who were provided breaks and plenty of water, and those who weren’t. The solid waste worker lost nearly 15% of his bodyweight in sweat over the course of his day, but he was able to replenish with ready access to water and sports drinks; though he spent most of his day loading garbage into the back of a truck, his skin temperature rarely surpassed the danger level. The farmworkers didn’t sweat nearly as much, likely because they started the day dehydrated. A few hours into the workday, however, their skin temperatures were already in the danger zone, and stayed there all day except for a brief stop for lunch.
Scientists who study human physiology use this kind of data to formulate standards that can protect workers from the high heat conditions our future holds. I used it to tell a story. The summer of 2023 may have been the hottest in history, but it’s also likely to be the coolest of the next century. Still, no matter how hot it gets, garbage still has to be collected, packages delivered, houses roofed, roads constructed, electricity grids expanded, and produce plucked for grocery store shelves. Helping outdoor workers withstand the heat isn’t just a question of human rights, it’s vital for a functioning society.