The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) and the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) reported that in 2021, the U.S. experienced 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, coming in second to 2020 in terms of number of disasters (20 versus 22) and third in total costs (behind 2017 and 2005). What really made 2021 stand out was the diversity of disasters, which included:
- One winter storm/cold wave event (focused across the deep south and Texas)
- One wildfire event (counted as the combined impacts of wildfires across Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington)
- One drought and heat wave event (summer/fall across the western U.S.)
- Two flood events (in California and Louisiana)
- Three tornado outbreaks
- Four tropical cyclones (Elsa, Fred, Ida and Nicholas)
- Eight severe weather events
Damages from the 2021 disasters noted above totaled approximately $145 billion. The costliest 2021 events were Hurricane Ida ($75 billion), the winter storm/cold wave ($24 billion) and the western wildfires ($10 billion).
The National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) is the nation’s scorekeeper in evaluating the costs associated with the financial outcomes of severe weather events. NCEI’s disaster cost assessment gathers statistics from a wide variety of sources, including The National Weather Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Interagency Fire Center, U.S. Army Corps, individual state emergency management agencies, state and regional climate centers, media reports and insurance industry estimates.
Costs shown on the chart on the opposite page represent estimated total costs of these events. Insured and uninsured losses are included in damage estimates. Between 1980 and 2021, the U.S. has sustained 310 weather and climate disasters where the overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The cumulative cost for these events exceeds $2.15 trillion.
With an increase in climate-driven disasters comes an increase in issues from the effects of working in locations that experience extreme heat, wildfires and flooding events.
WORKING IN EXTREME HEAT
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that from 2011 to 2019, environmental heat cases resulted in an average of 2,700 cases involving days away from work and a total of 344 work-related deaths due to environmental heat exposure. Workers in agriculture and construction are among those at the highest risk, but the problem affects all workers exposed to heat, including indoor workers without adequate climate-controlled environments.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have an official federal workplace heat standard in place, they only require companies provide adequate access to water without any other mandated heat-safety measures. In early 2021, the Senate and House introduced legislation requiring OSHA to write a federal heat standard on a fast-track timeline, including establishing heat-related safety precautions, mandated training on heat-related risk factors and emergency guidance when workers show signs of illness.
In April of 2022, OSHA launched a new program to help prevent worker heat injury and illness. The program came months after OSHA’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, where they requested information on heat-related workplace illness incidents from employers, occupational health specialists, climate scientists and workers. In summer of 2022, OSHA intends to inspect 70 high-risk industry workplaces during heat warnings and advisories. On days when the temperature is at a minimum of 80 degrees Fahrenheit, OSHA will reach out to employers and provide technical assistance to help workers stay safe in high heat. In addition, the organization will assist employers in creating guidelines for addressing heat injury and illness, with the ultimate goal being establishing federal workplace laws around heat stress.
In the meantime, in absence of a federal heat standard, several states have enacted temporary heat stress standards and are working on permanent ones. In July 2021, Washington state’s Department of Labor & Industries filed an emergency outdoor heat exposure rule to provide increased protection for employees exposed to extreme heat. California, through its Division of Occupational Safety and Health, is the only state with a permanent heat stress rule, which calls for heat illness prevention plans, shade structures when temperatures rise above 80 degrees Fahrenheit and required rest and recovery periods.
Experts are also pointing at climate change for increased droughts and wildfires. According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), 58,985 wildfires burned across the U.S. in 2021, compared with 58,950 in 2020. Federal wildfire suppression costs in the United States have spiked from an annual average of about $425 million (1985 to 1999) to $1.6 billion (2000 to 2019) according to NIFC data.
Beyond the risk to firefighters and emergency personnel battling these blazes, smoke from fires can cause significant health concerns for outdoor workers. In fact, 2021 wildfires prompted OSHA to issue guidance to employers about protecting employees working in areas where wildfires could spark or where smoke could be a concern. This includes ensuring that companies have appropriate employee protective equipment, evacuation plans, safety zones and contingency plans to shut down or move operations to a safer location.
In 2019, California OSHA adopted an emergency regulation protecting outdoor workers from wildfire smoke that results in an Air Quality Index (AQI) greater than 151 for fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Under the regulation, employers are required to provide employees an enclosed location with filtered air or relocate them to another outdoor location where the AQI is less than 151, change work schedules, reduce work intensity or provide more rest periods. Employers must also provide workers with respiratory protective equipment until the AQI is under 151.
In 2021, Washington state implemented regulations requiring employers to monitor and provide medical care, if necessary, to employees showing symptoms of smoke exposure, and take action to eliminate or reduce workers’ exposure to smoke when the AQI is over 151. Additionally, in mid-2021, Oregon state’s OSHA enacted temporary wildfire smoke rules requiring employers to provide N95 respirators to outdoor workers when the AQI reaches more than 101.
High tide flooding is occurring more frequently every year as sea levels continue to rise. Today, the U.S. annual high tide flooding frequency is more than twice that in the year 2000 due to rising relative sea levels.
According to NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management, the U.S. Southeast Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions saw a 400% increase in high tide flooding days in 2020, compared to 2000. Floods, of course, are dangerous for outdoor workers. Floods can quickly sweep away vehicles—a foot of water can float a vehicle, and two feet of moving water is enough to sweep away a car. According to OSHA, nearly half of workplace flood fatalities are vehicle-related. Floods also present hazards, from malfunctioning and potentially dangerous electrical
circuits and equipment and downed power lines. Additionally, flood cleanup on work sites can potentially put workers at risk from lifting injuries and exposure to mold and biohazards.
NOAA has predicted that by 2030, the national median frequency rate for high tide flooding is likely to increase by two to three times (from seven to 15 days) and that by 2050, high tide flooding in the U.S. is likely to occur between 25 and 75 days per year.
With the effects of climate change increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, this is a topic we will be sure to cover in upcoming Almanac editions.