Workplace injuries rise during heat waves in Oregon, OSU study finds

By Roman Battaglia (Jefferson Public Radio)
Oct. 1, 2022 8:57 p.m.

A new Oregon State University study shows an increased number of traumatic injuries on the job as the temperature rises, with rates higher among agriculture and construction workers.

The study, published Sept. 15, analyzed worker compensation claims in Oregon from 2009 to 2018 to look at the effects of heat on rates of traumatic injuries. The OSU research team combed over nearly 92,000 injury claims, filed between April 1 and Oct. 31 of each year, in which workers suffered temporary disability, permanent disability or death.

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In addition to heat, researchers also investigated the impact of wildfire smoke on worker injury rates.

Lead author Richard Evoy says the results helped to confirm his initial thoughts.

“We expected to see an increase, but we didn’t expect to see as dramatic of an increase as we saw,” he says.

The chef and owner of a yellow food cart stands inside, looking to camera.

Rico Loverde, chef and owner of the food cart Monster Smash Burgers, stands inside his broiling food cart in Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Loverde planned to shut down his food cart for the entire week because of extreme heat that makes it dangerous to work in the small, unventilated space. "We're exposed to the elements as food carts," he said. "I didn't expect to get these crazy heat waves in the summer. I've seen it get progressively worse every summer."

Gillian Flaccus / AP

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The researchers found a 15 to 29% increase in worker injuries when the temperature was above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Rates were even higher when the heat index rose above 90 degrees.

He adds that this study only shows an observed increase in injury rates. They’re not yet sure if the injuries are caused specifically by the higher temperatures.

Evoy says this research is important as the Pacific Northwest continues to experience hotter and drier summers.

“We have seen that increasing temperatures are going to happen across the U.S. and that there are health risks with extreme heat events,” Evoy says. “So it’s really important that we continue to study these and get more insight into how these events can impact workers’ lives and their health.”

Field laborers work at a farm on a cloudy day.

Pictured on Thursday, July, 1, 2021, in St. Paul, Oregon, field laborers work at a farm near Ernst Nursery and Farms, the location of a heat death during record breaking temperatures the weekend prior. Hundreds of deaths in Canada, Oregon and Washington may have been caused by the historic 2021 heat wave that baked the Pacific Northwest and shattered all-time temperature records in usually temperate cities.

Nathan Howard / AP

When looking at the impacts of wildfire smoke, Evoy says the results are inconclusive and more research is needed.

Traumatic injury rates were higher among agriculture and construction workers, who spend much of their time outdoors.

Oregon adopted new protections this year to require breaks and training to help workers during periods of extreme heat and wildfire smoke.

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