The problems have been growing for decades, from bad weather in the Midwest and Great Plains, to heavy flooding in the Midwest and West, to illnesses that are easily swept through the unprotected environment where many of these workers work.
But the deaths have become increasingly deadly in recent years. Nationally, a study published in the journal Injury Prevention found that 18 heat-related deaths occurred last year, up from 10 in 2016.
The deaths have left public health officials sounding the alarm. Experts and lawmakers say action is urgently needed because poor working conditions contribute to a lethal combination of a series of nasty conditions in the workers’ environment: severe weather, heat and humidity.
“We’re just beginning to recognize the extent of this problem, and how important it is to find solutions to help protect these workers,” said Mike Krammes, a senior engineering manager with Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing.
Two years ago, Toyota Motors and Toyota Motor Development Center in Massachusetts teamed up with Toyota Safety Research Center in Toyota’s research unit outside of Tokyo to examine the work of robots in harsh, harsh conditions to identify the most appropriate ways to make sure they work safely. That’s led Toyota to employ new technologies like heat-proofing techniques to keep robots safe. “As they’re moving around very quickly, it’s very important to make sure the robots are kept cool and have the materials they need,” said Mr. Krammes.
“So we’re actually developing systems that help keep them cooler, not make them warmer,” he said.
Between 2001 and 2014, there were 100 heat-related deaths in the U.S. Toyota has reported 55 of those deaths to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Toyota also has seven heat-related safety projects in ongoing U.S. testing. It also has two other heat-related projects underway in Japan.