Outdoor workers can pay a heavy price for Utah’s bad air
Wyatt Perides sat inside the Arby’s across from a construction site in Orem in early November. He was on his lunch break, feeling some reprieve from the heavy rain outside.
He was dressed in a bright fluorescent yellow vest, the sleeves of his beige hoodie were pushed up to his forearms, and his boots were caked in mud. Stubble on his jaw made his young face look older.
Perides is 20 and has been working in construction for the last four years. He spends most of his days working eight to 15 hour shifts outdoors — rain, shine, snow or bad air quality days.
He said he has had asthma his entire life, and it’s a condition he’s learned to deal with. But when he’s outside working in bad air, he’s extra cognizant of his breathing.
“I have an albuterol inhaler, and so on those days, all I can do is just say, ‘oh well’ and take a couple of puffs and hope I'll be OK,” Perides said.
This summer, Utah saw some of the worst pollution in the world due to wildfire smoke from regional events like California’s Dixie Fire. The air was filled with particulate matter and ozone, which are known to have damaging effects on health.
While most people were advised to stay indoors on Aug. 6 — Perides grabbed his inhaler, put on his hat hard and went to work. He remembered getting to the site, expecting to have a good day.
“It was a little foggy,” Perides said. “I thought it was just because of the mist, and when the sun hit, it was like a fire was right in front of ya. It got around 3 o'clock. It got so bad that we couldn't even see the giant loader. We had to be like 10 feet away from it.”
Perides said he had some trouble breathing that day. He tried to call his boss to let him know of his condition, but his call kept going to voicemail. By the fifth time he called he figured it wasn’t worth it anymore.
Another supervisor handed out some masks, and the day went on as usual.
“When it comes to my health and my safety, sometimes I feel like I'm pushing it some days, you know?” Perides said. “But other days I really don't [have] a choice. I gotta put food on the table, and it's scary.”
Breathing in that bad air can have long term health impacts. That’s especially true for outdoor laborers who are often doing heavy, manual work.
Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, studies the impact of climate change on outdoor workers. She specializes in extreme heat but has seen how other factors like bad air affects workers.
She said it’s not just people like Perides with asthma who are at risk.
“Things like fine particulate matter tend to affect people who have underlying conditions more,” Dahl said. “But exposure to that particulate matter is associated with cardiovascular disease, as well as respiratory problems and premature death.”
She said that while young and healthy people might not feel the effects on a day-to-day basis, it can cause negative health outcomes later on.
One Brigham Young University study found that Utahns’ median life expectancy is 1.1 to 3.6 years shorter due to bad air.
Dahl said there’s also inequality in how these effects are felt. Certain populations of people are more likely to be exposed to these conditions.
“Outdoor workers are people who have lower incomes than the general public,” she said. “They're disproportionately people of color. And, historically, we see that those groups of people are often living in financial situations that don’t allow them to be running an air purifier at home.”
According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, these groups are also less likely to have health insurance.
Brandon Dew is president of the Central Utah Federation of Labor and a former diesel mechanic. He said bad air is not on a lot of workers' minds.
“I don't think that air quality is one of those things that's really being educated on [at] job sites and being looked at as the health crisis that it potentially could be,” he said.
Dew said the health effects of workplace risks often don’t become apparent until later in life — like his hearing loss which he got from not wearing ear protection.
He said most workers aren’t thinking that far ahead. They’re trying to make ends meet, and they can’t afford a day off.
“There's no supplemental income,” Dew said. “They're not on salary. So for them and their families to put a roof over their head and to put food in their kids' bellies, they've got to go to work every day.”
States like California, Washington and Oregon have adopted certain protections for outdoor workers — like requiring employers to provide KN-95 masks if the air quality becomes too unhealthy.
But Utah does not have those kinds of protections in place. The Utah Labor Commission’s Occupational Safety and Health Division told KUER it’s not an issue they are currently working on. They declined to comment further for this story.
But one Utah lawmaker is planning a set of aggressive proposals to address air quality more broadly. The legislation would create new building standards to reduce emissions and make high polluting cars pay a higher fee for motor vehicle registration.
In the meantime, Dew said it’s the job of unions to raise awareness and advocate for workers rights.
“The topic needs to be talked about more regularly during mass safety meetings that are going on on construction sites — about the long term impacts of wearing a mask in bad air quality days and how that can have the same impact on our lungs that earplugs have on our long term hearing,” he said.
Dew said implementing a mask policy is difficult right now though, because they have been so heavily politicized during the pandemic.
As for Perides, he said he wishes people would consider the health of outdoor workers and make bigger changes to protect the air.
“People can always take a bus, take a train or ride a bike. It’s not hard,” he said as he wrapped up his lunch and headed back out to work.
For now, Perides will keep his inhaler close by and hope it’s enough.