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PHOENIX – Climate change has hit states’ workers compensation systems, as more severe weather patterns, wildfires and other incidents have resulted in lost worker hours and had detrimental effects on mental health, among other things, a panel of experts said.
After a disaster, employers must manage recovery efforts that are outside their usual operations, and employees can face more hazardous environments at work and home, they said.
Jeff Rush, workers compensation program manager for the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority California, a La Palma, California-based municipal risk pool that provides insurance services to public agencies, said he previously questioned climate change but had an “epiphany” after attending a conference addressing changes in weather patterns and their effect on the insurance market.
“Regardless of what I thought, there was an impact out there,” he said Tuesday during a session at the 2023 Workers Compensation Research Institute’s Issues & Research Conference. “Regardless of how I felt about climate change, our costs are going up. It took me a while to come to that realization.”
For example, recent wildfires in California that caused extensive property damage, also affected workers caught up in the disasters, Mr. Rush said.
Heat-related illnesses, carbon monoxide poisoning, fatigue, respiratory issues, slip and fall potential, unstable structures and electrical issues can all result from wildfires, he said.
Workers and employers face difficulties returning to work after climate-related disasters, said Jill Leonard, vice president of claims operations for the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Corporation, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based mutual workers comp insurer.
“How do employers reopen when this occurs?” Ms. Leonard said, highlighting damaging storms like Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf Coast in 2005.
After natural disasters, many workers must deal with issues such as flooding and property damage, loss of modes of transportation and limited access to fuel, while employers are tasked with figuring out how to clean up damaged businesses.
“It’s a new definition of business as usual for them,” Ms. Leonard said of employers. “You cannot find enough employees post-hurricane to do the work that needs to be done.”
Workers who are solicited to help with cleanup efforts – many of whom are day laborers – may not be accustomed to outdoor work and are suddenly faced with working in extreme heat and humidity, exposure to chemicals and mold, and using heavy equipment, she said.
In addition, workers who are not helping with cleanup may face their own hardships at home.
“We’re going to be dealing with injured workers who may have damage to their property,” she said.
Employers may have injured workers on the payroll who are collecting comp benefits and who are also now trying to deal with damage to their own houses and attempting to figure out how to pay the bills and buy food.
“It’s important to understand that operations will change after a severe weather event,” Ms. Leonard said.