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Facing Extreme Heat: Are Your Employees Tougher Than The Marines?

A business manager’s guide to human behavior during extreme heat events. Is your workforce as tough as the marines?

A Business Manager’s Guide to Human Behavior During Extreme Heat Events.
By Steve Crimando, MA, CTM

The U.S. Marines are tough. I don’t think you would find many people willing to argue that point. Even in managing some of the physically and psychologically toughest people on earth, Marine leadership understands the risks of extreme heat and adjusts their activity accordingly. In the Marine Corps, any day with a wet bulb temperature over 90°F is designated a Black Flag day, meaning that all non-essential activity is ceased. The U.K. Health Security Agency and Met Office have a similar model, and California’s new law, AB 2238, is creating the nation’s first statewide ranking and early warning system for heat waves. With an increase in extreme heat events worldwide, attention to safety and health is critical but the focus of these efforts is almost exclusively on the physical impact of extreme heat, with little discussion of the behavioral effects that can impact safety, productivity, and performance, even levels of workplace violence. Here’s a quick introduction for managers to some of the recognized behavioral risks associated with extreme heat events.

Heat and Productivity

Excessive heat is a recognized occupational and safety hazard. Above a certain threshold, the body’s internal regulation mechanisms cannot maintain body temperature at a level required for normal functioning. This entails increased risks of discomfort, limitations in physical functions, and eventually injuries and heat-related illness. A report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests that “By 2030, the equivalent of more than 2 percent of total working hours worldwide is projected to be lost every year, either because it is too hot to work or because workers have to work at a slower pace.” There is a documented increase in absenteeism and a decrease in work hours as the temperature rises. By the ILO’s estimates, this equates to a productivity loss equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs and is not limited to those who work in agriculture or other jobs directly in the sun. Workers in warehouses, manufacturing, and many other settings will also face heat-related risks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects that over 1.8 billion labor hours may be lost in 2100, costing an estimated $170 billion in lost wages. Climate change will substantially impact people’s ability to work, which will affect employers and employees.

Heat Increases The Risk Of Injury

Researchers at UCLA’s Luskin School for Innovation found that workplace injuries, even if they don’t seem directly related to high temperatures, tend to occur more frequently on hotter days. The study found that hot weather significantly increases the risk of accidents and injuries on the job. The UCLA study also found that in addition to heat-related illnesses, like heat stress and heat stroke, seemingly unrelated incidents, like falling off a ladder, being hit by a moving truck, or getting hands caught in machinery, also occurred more frequently on hotter days. The risk of injury increases with heat in indoor work settings, as well as outdoors. For example, in manufacturing, days with high temperatures above 95 degrees resulted in an injury risk approximately 7% higher than days with high temperatures in the low 60s. The hard costs of increased injuries (workers’ compensation, medical expenses, litigation, etc.) and soft costs (morale, workforce cohesion, trust in management, etc.), as well as the impact on productivity related to those injuries all contribute to heat-related financial risk, as well as operational risk.

Heat Impacts Physical Health

In the U.S., heat waves result in more deaths than all other forms of natural disasters combined and outpace hurricane-related deaths 8-to-1. The average number of annual heat-related deaths is increasing. But it is not just heat; increased precipitation, sea level rise, smoke from wildfires, and other conditions made worse by climate change have far-reaching adverse physical and mental health effects. Pre-existing medical conditions are exacerbated by different features of climate change, especially heat, and the potential for new illnesses increases. For example, vector-borne illnesses such as those carried by mosquitoes and ticks are likely to become more common as the geographic range of those insects, and their active season continues to expand. Worsening air quality related to particulate matter or higher pollen counts can elevate the risk of premature death, and cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.

Heat Distorts Behavior

Behavioral health disorders are some of the top causes of disability in established market economies. The Pan American Health Organization has declared mental health problems as now the leading cause of disability worldwide. An estimated 26% of Americans ages 18 and older—about 1 in 4 adults—suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. People with pre-existing behavioral health conditions are at higher risk for poor physical and behavioral health due to extreme heat. For example, the number of psychiatric emergencies presenting at community hospitals increases during heat waves. Psychiatric medications can be altered by extreme heat causing them to become less potent before their expiration dates, making a medication less effective, and possibly increasing the symptoms of mental illness during times of high heat. Many features of climate change contribute to stress, anxiety, depression, and grief. A Stanford University study also projected that “…there will be consistent and drastic increases in excess suicide deaths over this century under the current high-emission scenario.” These and other behavioral health problems are only likely to grow worse under projected climate conditions and extreme heat events.

Violence Risk Increases With Heat

When people are exposed to increased heat, they act more aggressively and more violently. There is a demonstrated causal relationship between heat and interpersonal aggression—as the temperature goes up, people’s behavior becomes more aggressive toward others. Heat affects arousal and irritability; it decreases attention and self-regulation, as well as increases the availability of negative and hostile thoughts. It also increases rates of violent crime. High temperatures cause the brain to divert resources to other parts of the body to cool down, and when people are overheated, they have trouble thinking straight. When the brain is not running at full capacity, it’s harder for someone to process new information, manage emotions, and control impulses. This cognitive disruption can lead to poor problem-solving and overreactions to perceived threats. When people are overheated, they also perceive other’s around them as behaving more aggressively, increasing the odds of hostile confrontations.

Feeling the Heat

Extreme heat and heat-related human factors will have a significant impact on every organization’s viability and profitability. Understanding the medical and behavioral risks associated with extreme heat is necessary to protect personnel and assets, as well as manage performance, productivity, and profitability. It will be important for organizations of all types to integrate heat-related human factors into their strategies to succeed in a rapidly changing environment.

It has been widely publicized that 2023 was the hottest year in recorded history as the planet experienced heating at an unprecedented pace. This year is predicted to be even hotter. As average global temperatures increase, managers must consider acute and chronic risks to their operations. As they do, it will be critical to recognize and address the impact on employee wellness and productivity, as well as safety and health.

This week more than one-third of all Americans are expected to be exposed to extreme heat. High temperatures, in the triple digits in many areas, combined with high humidity, will likely push the heat index above 105° F. It’s time to ask the question, are your employees tougher than the Marines?

Steve Crimando, MA, CTM, is the founder and principal of Behavioral Science Applications LLC, a behavioral risk consultancy based in the New York metropolitan area. He is a disaster and emergency behavioral health clinician, educator, and crisis responder who was deployed to the 1993 and 9/11 World Trade Center Attacks, the Northeast Anthrax Screening Center, and countless natural disasters and acts of mass violence. He is a published author of many magazine and journal articles, as well as textbook chapters, and is frequently called upon by the media and the courts as an expert in behavioral crisis prevention and response.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Click here for more insights about extreme heat.

AB 2238, Climate Change, Extreme Heat, Human Behavior, Injury Risk, International Labour Organization, Natural Disasters, Pan American Health Organization, Safety Hazard, Steve Crimando, U.K. Health Security Agency and Met Office, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Marines, UCLA’s Luskin School for Innovation, Workplace Violence

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