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How climate change will affect Minnesota’s outdoor workforce

A new study found that rising temperatures are projected to expose outdoor workers to hazardous heat conditions that will put both their health and wages at risk. 

photo of road construction workers
A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists finds occupations in construction and extraction are likely to be hit the by increasing temperatures.
Courtesy of MnDOT

Outdoor workers in Minnesota could lose up to $391 million in wages by the middle of the century if greenhouse emissions aren’t reduced, according to a report titled “Too Hot to Work,” released by the Union of Concerned Scientists this week. The study found that rising temperatures are projected to expose outdoor workers to hazardous heat conditions that will put both their health and wages at risk. 

Historically, Minnesota days have not been hot enough to pose a risk to workers, but the study found that without climate action this could change. Outdoor workers could lose up to 7 days of employment in some counties by the middle of the century or be exposed to hazardous heat if federal and state legislators fail to impose a standard for heat exposure.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends reducing work hours when temperatures rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and canceling work above 108 degrees, there are no legal limitations on outdoor working conditions for workers in extreme heat.

Currently, there are 535,000 outdoor workers in the state, comprising almost 18 percent of the state’s total workforce. These occupations include farmers, individuals working in forestry, construction workers, and those in the delivery services. 

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photo of rachel licker
Rachel Licker
The study found that occupations in construction and extraction are likely to be hit the hardest, with a projected loss of $114 million due to extreme heat by the end of the century. 

The study also found that, overall, the average outdoor worker could lose $630 individually over that same time period.  

“When you look at it in terms of the workdays that could be at risk, this is something that historically hasn’t been an issue in Minnesota. But as the century progresses, that story can be really different depending on whether we take action now or not,” said Rachel Licker, Ph.D., a climate scientist and an author of the report. “We could potentially prevent a lot of earnings from being at risk if we took climate action.”

The study provides several different scenarios for the effect of climate change on work days, including numbers that represent no action, some action, and full compliance to the Paris Climate Accords. The difference is stark. In Minnesota, without action, the study found an average of 13 outdoor work days at risk of being lost by the end of the century compared to a loss of two days if climate action is taken.

Health concerns

The effects of working in this heat can be dire, especially for workers who are not acclimated to high temperatures, said Laalitha Surapaneni, M.D., MPH, an assistant professor and hospitalist at the  University of Minnesota Medical School.

photo of Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni
Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni
“Every state and every region has its own kind of geographical climatic baseline and so people are used to different levels of temperatures. In Minnesota, temperatures in the 90s could actually be very damaging to someone who’s lived their life in the north compared to someone in a southern region,” said Surapaneni. “That’s why local health departments will issue those extreme heat warnings from a particular temperature.”

Outdoor workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than the average person, and a recent investigation from NPR found that 384 workers died from exposure to extreme heat in the past decade, with individuals identifying as Hispanic accounting for a third of the deaths.

Along with the risk of a heatstroke, outdoor workers who consistently work in high temperatures may be at risk of exacerbating underlying conditions when their bodies fail to receive a cool-off period.

‘Work days at risk’ vary by county

Projected loss-of-work days varied across the state. Several counties risked losing 18 work days, including Blue Earth County, Brown County, Dakota County, and Dodge County.   

Outdoor jobs in the Twin Cities face significant loss as well, with Hennepin County at risk of losing 15 days and Ramsey county at risk of losing 17 with no climate action. A factor due to the heat island effect, a phenomenon where cities are warmer than surrounding areas due to a variety of factors, including the lack of vegetation and greenery,  darker surface areas that absorb the sun’s radiation and from heat waste emitting from buildings and transportation.

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Statistically there’s going to be warmer conditions for urban workers, and it’s warmer for the number of reasons why an urban area is warmer,” said Tracy Twine, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate. “And so if you couple that with more frequent heat events where the overlying large scale weather doesn’t allow the air to cool too much overnight, then you increase the risk of health conditions to anybody who’s an outside worker.” 

People of color disproportionately affected

People of color, who make up 40% of the outdoor workforce nationally, will be disproportionately affected, according to the study. In Minnesota, approximately 7.5% of outdoor workers identify as Latino, and 5.8% identify as Black, while comprising 5.7% and 7%, respectively, of the state’s general population.

Suranpaneni says that health of undocumented workers are particularly at risk. “When you don’t have access to health care, you can’t get to a hospital where someone can bring your temperature down, or you might risk not receiving medical care,” Suranpaneni said. 

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Isabela Escalona, the communications director at Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (Center for Workers United in Struggle), a worker-led labor movement group, said that while all low-wage workers often lack federal and state protection, language barriers for some immigrant workers create even more of a disadvantage.      

“Something we might see is that a worker who is maybe not born here or who is an immigrant, their bosses could take advantage of them or misinterpret laws. So those things definitely make things difficult for workers of color,” Escalona said.

Working in environmentally hazardous conditions is something many construction workers and outdoor workers have to deal with, said Escalona. “Workers in construction have always felt these impacts, whether it’s extreme heat or extreme cold. Their work is so intrinsically tied to the environment or hazardous chemicals.”

photo of maximo gutierrez
Maximo Gutierrez
Maximo Gutierrez, a construction worker and organizer with CTUL, said when he first arrived from Honduras, he had hoped that labor laws would be different in America.

“I had this idea that there would be a lot of laws and protections for workers, but then once I finally got here I saw that it would be up to the bosses whether there would be protections,” said  Gutierrez, who has been organizing to gain more protections for his fellow outdoor workers.

In recent years he has seen the health of his coworkers impacted by extreme heat and poor air quality. When the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued an air quality alert, encouraging the public to stay indoors, Gutierrez and his coworkers had little choice but to work in toxic air.

“Of course I had to work,” Gutierrez said. “We don’t have the support of any institution. In many ways we’re practically isolated in this industry. And the system, you know, isn’t working for us. They treat us like we’re disposable tools.”

And as for climate change, Gutierrez says he has experienced the summers becoming increasingly warmer and unpredictable.

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“We as construction workers who work outside feel it [the weather] in every cell of our bodies,” Gutierrez said. “We feel the cold, we feel the heat. And it’s not just the heat. There’s extreme rain storms, intense cold the next day. And those dramatic changes really impact us as workers.”