Letter from the Director

Photo: John R. Balmes, COEH DirectorJohn R. Balmes, COEH Director

The California Air Resources Board is charged with overseeing the state’s implementation of AB32’s mandate to mitigate climate change with concrete policies. These policies include energy conservation, a renewable electricity generation goal (33 percent by 2020), the reduction of high impact greenhouse gases, a technology-forcing advanced clean cars program, a low-carbon fuel standard, a cap-and-trade program to put a price on carbon emissions, and a sustainable communities strategy to reduce suburban sprawl and vehicle miles traveled. As a member of the Board since January 2008, I have had the opportunity to participate in the public debates about the implementation of these programs and am quite proud of how various stakeholders in California have come together to advance our state’s efforts to prevent severe climate change. Since California is leading the nation, if not the world, it can tend to give one an overly optimistic view of the future. However, the newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on health impacts that is discussed in this issue of Bridges provides a sobering reality check. COEH faculty member Kirk Smith is one of two coordinating lead authors of this IPCC report.

As all of you know, California has experienced record-breaking summer heat over the past decade. Climate change models forecast increasing temperatures and more frequent heat wave events in the future. Exposure to environmental heat is a significant, but overlooked, workplace hazard that has not been a major focus of research. Relatively few studies have characterized the incidence of occupational heat-related morbidity and mortality. More importantly, there are no federal regulatory standards to protect workers from environmental heat exposure. Manual workers who are exposed to extreme heat or work in hot environments may be at risk of heat stress. At risk workers include farmers, construction workers, fire fighters, miners, military personnel, and manufacturing employees working around process-generated heat. With increasing frequency and intensity of extreme heat days due to climate change, workplace heat exposure presents a growing challenge to occupational health and safety professionals.

Despite this challenge, the development of policies to prevent heat disorders is currently hampered by inadequate data on the frequency of, and risk factors for, these disorders. The potential impacts of workplace heat exposure are likely underestimated due to the underreporting of heat illnesses. In addition to better surveillance data, more research is needed to quantify the extent to which high-risk manual workers are physiologically and psychologically affected by workplace heat exposure. How workers try to behaviorally adapt to extreme heat environments is another research question for which more data are needed.

With climate change driving increasing frequency of extreme heat days, efforts to both characterize the magnitude of the problem of work-related heat stress and develop policies to prevent it are increasingly imperative. Thus, I am proud to see that COEH members are doing critical work in both of these areas. In this issue of Bridges you can read about how a UC Davis research team is characterizing farm worker heat stress and how an LOHP team is leading a campaign to educate California’s outdoor workers about what they can do to prevent heat-related illness. Additionally, the theme of this year’s COEH annual symposium on Friday, May 9, 2014, is about the occupational and environmental health impacts of climate change. We hope to see many of you at this event.

back to top