In Alberta, workers in industries such as farming, construction, restaurants, factories, firefighting, and others are at a higher risk of heat stress and heat-related illnesses due to the nature of their work. However, the impacts of extreme heat are not felt equally across all population segments. Low-income workers, who often have limited access to resources and support, are disproportionately affected by heat-related health risks.
These workers often face additional challenges, such as inadequate housing, lack of access to air conditioning, and limited financial means to take time off work or seek medical attention. Furthermore, these workers are more likely to work in jobs with higher exposure to heat and less access to protective measures, such as shade, rest breaks, and proper hydration. As a result, the inequity in the distribution of heat-related risks exacerbates the vulnerability to the adverse effects of extreme heat in Alberta.
Working in high temperatures, especially outdoors, can lead to various heat-related symptoms and illnesses. These can vary from mild dehydration and heat rash to life-threatening heat stroke. Exposure to extreme heat can also exacerbate chronic health issues like cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, and diabetes, increasing the risk of heat-related morbidity and mortality. Heat stress can negatively impact workers’ mental and physical abilities, impairing concentration, coordination, and judgment and increasing the risk of occupational injuries.
Employers and workers must be aware of the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and take appropriate preventive measures to ensure safety in hot environments.
While there are no specific ongoing studies or research on the effects of extreme heat on workers in Alberta, there are studies related to extreme heat and its impacts on workers in general.
Climate change, driven by human activities such as burning fossil fuels, has increased the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme heat events worldwide . The rise in global temperatures due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere amplifies heat extremes, making them more severe and widespread . Attribution studies have demonstrated significant increases in the likelihood of recent heat waves due to climate change . In some cases, extreme heat events are virtually impossible without human influence on the climate, such as Siberia’s heatwave in 2020 and the Pacific Northwest’s “heat dome” event in 2021 and now starting again in 2023 .
Cooler parts of the planet, like Canada, are also heating up faster than places closer to the equator, posing substantial risks to people living in those areas . As climate change intensifies, heat extremes are expected to worsen, posing significant dangers to human health, agriculture, and infrastructure .
Alberta has experienced the impacts of climate change, including increased frequency and severity of extreme heat events . Climate change is expected to result in long-term changes in temperature and increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events . In combination with the current El Niño cycle, Alberta will likely face warmer and drier conditions, particularly in the summer . El Niño is known to cause milder and drier winters and warmer and drier summers and comes with higher risks of frequent wildfires . The trend in Alberta is expected to continue with shorter, warmer winters, hotter summers, and increased precipitation . However, due to moisture loss from soil and vegetation, Alberta is likely to become drier overall, especially in the summer . Western Canada will be experiencing more frequent and intense forest fires every year. The costs will be immense. Though no figures are readily available, we can look at the costs in 2016, where Alberta spent $9 billion .
In Alberta, employers are required to assess heat-related hazards and take all reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of workers . And the Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers to put controls in place for protection and educate workers on the hazards of working in extreme heat. Some measures include using a work-rest schedule, changing the work location to a cooler shaded area, creating a cooling station where workers can rest, and providing plenty of cool drinking water .
UFCW Local 401 Alsco members involved in trucking had prioritized it in their bargaining last year when the employer refused to provide air conditioning in their trucks and even went so far as to try to ban thermometers in the cabs of the vehicles . As the problem increases, we expect this prioritization to increase in importance for workers.
In the last three years, at least 66 deaths in Alberta have been attributed to extreme heat, specifically during the historic heatwave in June 2021 . However, information on injuries or fatalities in the workplace due to extreme heat is not generally available. And a search on Alberta’s WCB database and CaNLII’s legal database found no violations charged with heat-related incidents.
Does this mean that there isn’t a problem? Sixty-six heat-related deaths would seem to contradict that conclusion.
And as climate change continues to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events, employers and policymakers need to prioritize the health and safety of workers in Alberta and implement effective measures to protect them from the impacts of extreme heat.
So what is being proposed in Alberta’s legislature to address this increasingly urgent concern? Well, nothing presently.
Although the climatologists have warned us for a long time, the water has only just started to boil for the frogs seated in our halls of power. It’s not that there hasn’t been a fair amount of debate over the existence of climate change or the prioritization of global warming mitigation vs economic concerns.
It’s just that now, we urgently need practical day-to-day guard rails to make sure we stay safe.
1. Implement stricter heat stress exposure limits and mandatory rest breaks: Establish regulations that set exposure limits for workers in extreme heat conditions and require employers to provide regular rest breaks in shaded or cool areas.
2. Develop and enforce heat acclimatization plans: Require employers to create plans that gradually increase workers’ exposure to heat, allowing their bodies to adapt to the conditions and reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses.
3. Enhance worker training and awareness: Provide comprehensive training for workers and supervisors on the risks of heat stress, the symptoms of heat-related illnesses, and the appropriate preventive measures.
4. Improve access to hydration and cooling stations: Ensure that employers provide adequate supplies of cool drinking water and establish cooling stations where workers can rest and recover from heat exposure.
5. Encourage the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and heat-reducing clothing: Promote the use of PPE designed to minimize heat strain and encourage the development and use of heat-reducing clothing and cooling vests.
These proposals aim to protect workers in Alberta from the increasing threats posed by extreme heat due to climate change, ensuring their safety and well-being in the workplace.
But none of them are worth anything unless there’s a strict regime of monitoring and enforcing compliance by employers regarding heat safety regulations. We must strengthen the enforcement of heat safety regulations by conducting regular inspections and imposing penalties for non-compliance.
So, in the end, it doesn’t take much investigation to conclude that Alberta’s workers, particularly those in farming, construction, restaurants, factories, and firefighting, face increasing risks due to extreme heat events. Climate change has intensified these heat extremes, posing significant challenges to human health, agriculture, and infrastructure. The working poor are disproportionately affected by heat-related health risks, highlighting the urgent need for equitable solutions to protect vulnerable populations.
As climate change continues to amplify extreme heat events, employers, policymakers, and workers must prioritize health and safety and implement effective measures to protect workers from the impacts of extreme heat. While the Alberta government has guidelines to protect workers from extreme heat, there is a pressing need for more comprehensive measures and stricter enforcement of heat safety regulations.
Now is the time for action. We must unite as a community to raise awareness, advocate for more robust policies, and demand better worker protection. We cannot afford to wait any longer. Lives are at stake, and the future of our workforce depends on our collective efforts to create a safer and more resilient Alberta in the face of a changing climate.– Thomas Hesse, President of UFCW Local 401.
Albertans need to stand up for the health and safety of workers, support equitable solutions, and ensure that no one is left behind in the fight against extreme heat. Together, they can make a difference and safeguard the well-being of Alberta’s workforce for generations to come. If indifference and apathy prevail, heat-related deaths in Alberta will become as common as forest fires.
1. Heavy sweating
2. Cool, moist skin with goosebumps when in the heat
6. Weak, rapid pulse
7. Low blood pressure upon standing
8. Muscle cramps
11. Cold, pale, and clammy skin
12. Fast, weak pulse
13. Tiredness or weakness
14. Decreased urine output
17. Elevated body temperature
It is essential to take immediate action to prevent the condition from worsening. Move to a cooler place, rest, and drink cool water or sports drinks. Seek medical help if the symptoms worsen or do not improve within an hour.
Employers and workers must be educated on extreme weather conditions such as extreme heat. If you’d like to start that process, you can learn more from the Alberta WCB’s booklet, “Best Practice – Working Safely in Heat and Cold.”