Dangerous heat wave bears down on outdoor workers in St. Louis
Ian Quattrocchi is a landscape worker, born and raised in St. Louis' summer heat and humidity, but the extreme heat has changed the way he and other outdoor laborers are working this week.
The National Weather Service on Monday issued an excessive heat warning for the St. Louis region that lasts through Wednesday evening, as the area endures conditions that can feel as hot as 110 degrees.
In 2015, Missouri had about 15 days with dangerous heat levels, according to a report from States at Risk, a project that shows how Americans experience climate change. By 2050, that number is expected to quadruple, the report says.
To withstand the blazing heat this week, Quattrocchi and Chris Carl, his employer, have a system.
“Anytime you're starting to feel pretty exhausted, we're telling each other, ‘Hey, let's take a break now,’” Quattrocchi said.
In addition to taking frequent breaks, Quattrocchi said they both try to work in the shade as much as possible — using the buildings and trees around them to their advantage.
“You can kind of plan your day,” he said. “If you start early, we know where the shade is and we can try to follow where the shade’s at.”
Heat is a huge issue for outdoor laborers in Missouri, said Bill McDonald, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration director in St. Louis.
Twenty-two states have OSHA-approved plans that enforce stricter standards on employers to protect their employees than the federal administration requires nationwide.
“Certain states can go above and beyond what the federal mandate is if they want more protections for their workers,” he said.
Missouri does not have a state plan. Illinois does, but it covers state and local government workers only.
Neither has another tool to help protect workers: a heat standard. (Only three states do: California, Minnesota and Washington). Without that heat standard, McDonald said it’s difficult for OSHA to issue formal citations against companies.
“Since we don't have a standard, it's a lot harder to enforce,” McDonald said. “We have to prove that the employer knew or should have known that [the heat] was a hazard.”
Within the past year, OSHA has increased its marketing and education to address heat-related illnesses and deaths. The effort includes a National Emphasis Program, which aims to prevent emergencies on job sites.
“We can actually target workplaces beforehand and evaluate their heat illness program prior to them actually having an issue with heat,” McDonald said.
The program began in April and addresses specific industries that are most affected by heat. In St. Louis, this includes construction, roofing and delivery services, McDonald said.
The administration has also developed a mobile app, OSHA-Niosh, which gives users location-specific heat index values and says how dangerous it is to be outside.
With high temperatures and the current heat advisory in St. Louis, the Missouri Department of Transportation is providing water, electrolyte drinks and PPE equipment to outdoor workers within the department, said Joe Moore said, MODOT’s safety and health manager.
In addition, Moore said the department is postponing work that could put workers at risk in the heat, such as patching hot asphalt or working on bridges made of metal that heats up quickly.
“There'll be no free days at work this week,” Moore said. “We'll still be working full staff as always, [and] we'll just have changed some operations around to make sure we don't have any heat-related emergencies.”
Farrah Anderson is the newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio. Follow her on Twitter: @farrahsoa.
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