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Getting worse each year: Heat-related illnesses have increased, DRI research shows

Heat
AP Photo/John Locher, File
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File - In this July 26, 2018, file photo, a man cools off in a water mist along the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas.

Tomorrow is the first day of summer, and we all know what’s coming: scorching heat.

Most people work indoors in air conditioning. But you’ve seen people outside in this heat on rooftops hammering nails; on cherry pickers trimming palm fronds; landscaping lawns.

Talk to those men and women and they’ll say that after a while, you just get used to it.

Mentally, perhaps. But new research says the long-term physical impact can be pretty devastating.

The Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas has been working on a decade-long project looking at the impact of hot temperatures on outdoor workers.

Erick Bandala is an assistant research professor in environmental science for DRI, and the lead researcher on the study.

Each year, he said, you can hear people saying the heat is worse than in past years. So, he started research to see if there’s a trend with statistical significance.

“The heat is getting worse every year,” he said. From there, it’s hotter later into the night, and the gap between nighttime and midday highs is shrinking. “Those who had access to the A/C in the nighttime, for example, were good, but what about those that cannot afford having this type of relief for them and their families in the household, and they may be exposed to the heat?”

His research came about from trying to understand how the extreme heat may affect the water quality and use in the valley. They landed on how it affects health in more general sense.

Las Vegas is a heat island, he said. A solution for this is adding greenery around the city, but that will require water at a time of shortage.

“We need to also take a look at how we use the water in a more efficient way … but also keep our population safe and not exposed to that heat,” he said.

His latest research showed outdoor workers having heat-related injuries and illnesses has increased over time. In 2011, he said Nevada was below the national average. By the end of 2018, we were above it.

“We found also that depending on the gender, you may be experiencing some different symptoms and things that need to be considered for the regulation that may come after that,” he said. “And we have observed an increase in the number of women being affected, female outdoor workers that are affected by extreme heat.”

Age is another significant risk, he said. Their researched showed those who have worked outside five years or more were more susceptible to heat-related illness, rather than those just starting in those jobs.

“If you think about this, after five years working in those conditions, you may be more vulnerable, just because you're tired or exhausted, probably you get older. But something that I was thinking about is what about the perception of risk, you know, when you're exposed to the risk on a daily basis, or very frequently you get used to that,” Bandala said.

Jorge Macias with Martin Harris Construction said they educate crews on heat-related illnesses and how to stay hydrated to protect their workers.

“The training and monitoring come in, right? So, we have to make sure that we're doing frequent training, and letting them know what's okay, what to do, what not to do, and just kind of embedding it in them, and also monitoring your employees,” he said.

“Walking around, does somebody look extremely tired? At 110 degrees, and they don't feel like they've been sweating much? Does somebody look confused? If somebody's just taking a break at a time when nobody else is taking a break, or just sitting in the shade somewhere, drinking water? Those are the type of things as employers that we have to be vigilant about, to make sure that our employees aren't getting sick.”

Erick Bandala, assistant research professor of environmental science, Desert Research Institute;  Jorge Macias, director of safety, Martin Harris Construction

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Christopher Alvarez is a news producer and podcast audio editor at Nevada Public Radio for the State of Nevada program, and has been with them for over a year.
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