“Extreme weather with high winds” no longer automatically means snowy blizzards battering homes and schools and causing massive power blackouts. It can just as easily conjure up images of melting asphalt on the roads and power blackouts caused by surges in demand for electricity for cooling that the power companies can’t meet. This new weather paradigm has profound implications for different sectors, from healthcare to employment, and requires a comprehensive understanding and response.
Neither the higher echelons of government at the Federal or State levels nor the local authorities have real experience in handling this unexpected development. There are now calls, like this one, for the Federal Administration to declare a national emergency over climate change in the wake of disasters like the devastating fires in Hawaii. Given the need for more consensus on climate change solutions, whether this approach can bring meaningful change makes it difficult to predict any meaningful impact.
Right now, there are two sectors of society where organizations and individuals who have to deal with the consequences of these new extreme weather patterns are starting to raise their concerns – healthcare and large corporations.
What will be the impact of extreme weather on the healthcare sector?
The human body’s sensitivity to temperature has been long understood. Just think about how many times a thermometer was used in your home. An abnormally high body temperature is typically associated with internal infections that could cause permanent damage to vital organs, making temperature control a key focus of medical care.
High temperatures are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, high ambient temperatures can make it difficult for people infected with bugs and viruses to handle their already increased body temperatures. This could result in hospitals and clinics being flooded with patients who need cooling even more than they need treatment for their illness. On the other hand, elevated body temperatures can cause heat stroke, and if that’s caused by external heat – what’s referred to as non-exertional heatstroke – it can even be fatal.
How does extreme heat impact brain health?
“Researchers from the New York University (NYU) School of Global Public Health and Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea found that extreme heat can “trigger a cascade of events in the brain, including cellular damage, inflammation, and oxidative stress, all of which can exhaust one’s cognitive reserve,” Virginia Chang, an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at NYU and the study’s senior author, said in a statement.
“Cognitive decline may not manifest right after a single heat event, but repeated or prolonged exposures to extreme heat may be detrimental,” Chang added.
What are the rising costs and medical concerns coming from extreme weather?
The financial implications of this new weather paradigm for the healthcare industry are concerning. The overall expenditure necessary to prevent a significant surge in heat-related illnesses can only be guessed.
A study published by the Center for American Progress in June 2023 highlighted the tangible impact of heat events in Virginia from 2016 to 2020. These figures nationally mean that heat event days are responsible for almost 235,000 emergency department visits and more than 56,000 hospital admissions for heat-related or heat-adjacent illness. This could add approximately $1 billion in hospital costs every summer. And remember that the overall frequency and severity of extreme heat events in the five-year survey was considerably lower than we have seen since then.
Unequal Distribution of Risks
Recognizing that the dangers aren’t equally spread across the U.S. population is critical. Low-income families are particularly vulnerable, lacking access to air-conditioned housing, private transportation, and affordable healthcare. They are more likely to work in blue-collar jobs and be engaged for long hours outdoors or in uncooled indoor spaces. They are also more likely to lack access to health insurance and affordable health care and to carry higher medical risks because of preexisting conditions such as hypertension or organ diseases.
This means that the whole healthcare sector, from hospitals and clinics, doctors, healthcare insurance companies, and Social Security budgets, will be subject to new sources of strain. There is little room to navigate, and while the upper levels of government may feel that they have room to discuss options before taking any concrete steps, there doesn’t seem to be any way that a significant restructuring of the healthcare system can be delayed.
How can employers help their people and themselves cope with the new heat?
The changes that have impacted healthcare have parallel effects on corporate life. On one hand, rises in temperatures directly impact worker productivity. Employers have little “wriggle room” to keep worker output at former levels when this could introduce risk of health impacts. On the other hand, employers have legal responsibilities to protect their employees and ensure they work in a safe environment, even in extreme weather conditions. So far, the Federal government has failed to issue a country-wide standard that reinforces heat safety, but that can’t be too far off. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has already launched a three-year National Emphasis Program (NEP) focused on high-hazard industries like construction workers reinforcing requirements like “Water. Rest. Shade”.
The response from industry bodies and leaders has been varied and innovative, from shifting work schedules to cooler hours to fitting employees with wearable tech devices that constantly monitor body temperatures and warn shift supervisors when employees exceed their heat threshold. More directly, changes are being made in-house to ensure a safe working environment. Installing solar panels on roofs to absorb heat and providing portable shading when work has to be conducted outdoors are just two such moves that many employers are now taking.
These measures reflect a growing acknowledgment of the multifaceted impact of extreme heat on the workforce.