Smoke clogs the Idaho valley where I live annually and with regularity. For me, the smoke that NASA satellite
Up in Smoke?
images show shrouding much of the
Western U.S. represents mounting
evidence of climate change.
The problem hasn’t yet touched
workers’ comp. But if scientists are
right, and we are experiencing a new
normal in wildfires, the smoke will
affect overall worker health far beyond
the flames’ reach, in turn impacting
workers’ comp claims outcomes.
For insurers, global warming and
wildfires are largely a property issue —
for now. Swiss Re, which has been at the
forefront of addressing climate change,
reports worldwide wildfire frequency
has been increasing for decades. A
record-setting $14 billion in insured
wildfire losses occurred in 2017— most
of that in the U.S. and Canada.
Some work-related losses are
obvious, although they remain low
frequency. Think of the firefighters
who died this year battling California
blazes or the electrical lineman
who perished restoring power in a
California burn area; as fires burn,
more workers will face hazardous
environmental conditions removing
the debris of lost homes.
There is a broader picture, however.
Where I live, smoke pours in from
California fires nearly 1,000 miles away.
It drifts over the mountains from forests
burning in Oregon, Washington state
and British Columbia. If the wind shifts,
it comes from Montana. We also have
10 wildfires burning here in Idaho.
It’s early August as I write this
column, early in an ever-lengthening
fire season, and the smoke blocks my
view of the mountains a few miles away.
Residents are warned to avoid
strenuous outdoor exercise, especially
sufferers of respiratory conditions.
But construction workers are still
laboring strenuously, delivery drivers
are hurriedly carrying packages to
doorsteps and garden landscapers are
all outdoors sucking in dangerous
With 106 large wildfires currently
burning in 15 states, the impact is felt
across more Western cities.
If we know that exercise, not
smoking and other good behaviors,
improve worker health and
productivity — as well as improve
workers’ comp claims outcomes —
what does all this smoke tell us?
I’m not alone in thinking about this.
A friend responsible for integrated
leave management at a Seattle-area
employer with outdoor workers said
that, when the smoke engulfs her city,
she wonders if respirators will become
standard outdoor-worker safety gear.
This is not a cheerful topic to
ponder. And with legacy claims, opioid
addiction and other more immediate,
pressing challenges, workers’ comp
claims managers are probably too
busy to ponder an unmeasurable
If there is any way to protect
workers — perhaps schedule more
work indoors when possible — it would
be a smart safety practice to do so. &
ROBERTO CENICEROS is senior editor at
Risk & Insurance® and chair of the National
Workers’ Compensation and Disability
Conference® & Expo. He can be reached at
BY ROBERTO CENICEROS
© 2018 Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Company of Canada. All rights reserved. RSA, RSA & Design, and related words and logos are trademarks and the property of RSA
Insurance Group plc, licensed for use by Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Company of Canada. RSA is a trade name of Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Company of Canada.
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