Workers in Heat Waves Face Dangerous Exposure in the US Southwest

August 21, 2019

An extreme heat wave is covering up to 13 U.S. states. Along with the homeless population, this particularly affects workers who work outdoors, leading to numerous heat exposure deaths this year alone

An extreme heat wave is covering up to 13 U.S. states. Along with the homeless population, this particularly affects workers who work outdoors, leading to numerous heat exposure deaths this year alone


Workers in Heat Waves Face Dangerous Exposure in the US Southwest

Story Transcript

NARRATOR In the second week of August, 2019, a dangerous heat wave was declared as a public safety concern for 13 States from Kentucky to California with triple digit temperatures in areas where millions of people live. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, July, 2019 was the hottest month on record in over 100 years. Well, for most workers and students staying indoors was enough to repel the danger. For people working outside, the situation can turn pretty dire. 

KC MCGRIFF Water, I need to keep water with me. Just keep it by my side. Cold water at that. I just can’t get the regular. You get a headache. You might even get nauseous. You might faint. 

NARRATOR According to usa.gov, heat waves are high-pressure systems that create a cap trapping air in one place as it warms. The site says, “heat waves like this may be less exciting or dramatic than other natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding or even thunderstorms, but heat waves killed more people in the United States than all other weather-related disasters combined.” 

OSCAR LEÓN It’s 110 degrees at 11:00 AM here in Phoenix, Arizona. I have been working for 15 minutes and I’m already sweating like crazy and I feeling short of breath. 

UNNAMED 1 Drink plenty of water and then we go into any office building that allows us to sit in there and relax. But it’s very important to dress cool. I’ve seen some people where you don’t know if they’re dead or alive. Every time I get a chance I try to give someone water if I have an extra bottle of water. 

NARRATOR Because Phoenix, Arizona is in the middle of the Sonoran desert, knowing what to do and being prepared can make the difference between a day on the job and a possible tragedy. The city knows this and makes preparations. 

MARK HARTMAN Much of our life, the way our buildings are built, the way we move around our city is very much desert-adapted. 

NARRATOR Mark Hartman is Chief Sustainability Officer at the City of Phoenix. 

MARK HARTMAN One thing we have is a really, I think probably the best in the nation, a heat relief network. It’s 139 organizations that all participate in providing cooling centers and places for water distribution sites and things that people can go to if they need to cool down or even in the case of power outages and things like that, that people can have a place they can go to to get cool and stay cool. 

NARRATOR This was a near record-setting week with an overall extreme excessive warning representing danger to everyone, which was broadly broadcasted over all local media. On Thursday, it was projected to reach 114 degrees, one degree shy of the records set four years ago and while it was broadcasted on Friday to fall below 110 Fahrenheit, we measured 113 at 3:30 PM. 

OSCAR LEÓN “I felt dizzy. I felt a headache. I feel short of breath and I definitely realized that I needed to get out of the sun.” 

NARRATOR According to a study by the County of Maricopa where Phoenix is located, over the last three years, there’s been a spike in deaths over the summer with 154 in 2016, 179 in 2017, and 182 in 2018. 

CPT. DANNY GILE Brian, our our call volume definitely does spike in the summer for sure. Our call volume goes up tremendously because the heat does exasperate medical issues. Anybody who has a normal medical problem, be it the young, elderly, the homeless population, those problems are going to get affected with the heat. 

NARRATOR Out of the local heat-related fatal cases, roughly 59% have been determined by the county to have been directly caused by heat. Surprisingly, according to the study, 82% of indoor deaths had an air conditioning unit present at the time of death and perhaps not so surprisingly, 60% of outdoor heat-related deaths occurred in an urban area where there are fewer trees and vegetation to help cool off the environment. 

According to the report, 23% of heat-related deaths occurred on days for which an excessive heat warning has been issued. The account is still open for 2019, but so far there have been plenty of cases reported. Like Stephen [Ballin 00:04:11] , an AC technician who was working on an attic while the city was at an average of 107 degrees and after 30 minutes of being in the attic, he was found unresponsive, later declared dead on June 19, 2019. 

More recently on Thursday, August 15, the news broke out that two managers of a senior home were convicted for the death of a 69-year-old senior under their care after the AC at the facility failed for two days and the house temperature was 94 degrees. The victim’s room was found to have been at 100 degrees for 48 hours. 

MARK HARTMAN For us, heat is like a silent storm and we need to think about it that way and be recognizing. Our workers start sometimes at 4:00 and 5:00 AM. They’re starting early in the morning. Yeah, no I think it’s just changing the work times versus trying to say, “Oh, you only have to work half as hard because it’s a really hot day.” 

NARRATOR Workdays that begin at 4:00 AM, that was what Casey had told us earlier. 

KC MCGRIFF Exactly, why I’m leaving right now at 1:00 as to where you want to start at 6:00 to 2:00, 2:30, I’m not doing it. I’d rather come in at 5:00, the extra hour. If I could come at 4:00, I would be here at 4:00 to leave at 12:00. 

NARRATOR The CDC warns that above 103 degrees of internal body temperature, it should be considered a medical emergency and one should call 9-1-1. Wherever you are, if you have work outside during a heatwave, remember a few tips from Arizona’s workers. Cover your body from the sun. Get yourself in the shade every chance you get. Wear light colors and wear a hat. Have an abundance of cold water available and drink abundantly every 20 to 30 minutes. 

Plan your schedule. Start before the sun goes out. Reschedule if you have to. Do not work at peak temperature hours. Do not work for more than 20 minutes at a time. Take water and shade breaks. If you’ve witnessed someone falling victim of a heatstroke or fainting, provide water to drink and take the subject out of the sun to a cold area as soon as possible. Drink water the night before or hydrate very early if you’re going to be outside the next day. 

MARK HARTMAN Most people say, “Oh, I’m sorry wrong. I can do it.” But you can’t combat heat. You need to actually properly cool and hydrate your body. 

CPT. DANNY GILE Anytime you’re outside working in that kind of extreme heat, very dangerous because your body has trouble handling that heat. Especially if you’re not acclimatized to the area, especially if you’re not used to working outside. 

NARRATOR Alerts have been set for the next week with another round of record setting temperatures predicted not only for Arizona, but for all of the country. Stay with Real News for more on this issue.