The effects of climate change are usually discussed in terms of impact on the natural environment and general human population. However, very little focus has been placed on the impacts of climate change on occupational health and safety. Workers in particular areas are more vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change because they may experience longer and more intense exposures to climate change related hazards. Therefore, understanding the effects that climate change has on the health and well being of workers can help employers to mitigate the risks.

What is Climate Change?

Climate change refers to the change in the average weather conditions of the Earth’s overall climate. Although the Earth’s climate has gone through changes in the past, observations are showing that the Earth is getting much warmer. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the average temperature of the Earth has risen by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 100 years. Furthermore, this is expected to rise by another 0.5 to 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. As a result of this rise in the Earth’s average temperature, sea levels are also rising.

How Climate Change is Affecting Workers

According to the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, climate change may not only increase the severity and frequency of occupational hazards and exposures, but also create new hazards and exposures. Here is a look at four ways that climate change poses a risk to workers.

1. Increased ambient temperatures

Higher temperatures combined with longer and more frequent exposure to heat, increase workers’ risks of heat stress. This may lead to more cases of heat-related illnesses among the labour force. These heat-related illnesses may include, but are not limited to dehydration, fatigue, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Increased ambient temperatures will increase the cases of heat-related illnesses due to the fact that high external temperatures increase body temperature. As such, carrying out strenuous physical activities in hot, humid environments increases worker risk for heat-related illnesses. For more on heat-related fatigue in the workplace, check out Beating the Heat.

Increase in ambient temperatures can also have indirect impacts in the form of bodily harm and injury caused by fatigue. Additionally, the physical discomfort associated with an increase in a worker’s internal body temperature can lead to negligence regarding safety issues due to changes in the worker’s emotional state (for example, irritability).

Factors that can exacerbate the effects of increasing ambient temperatures on workers include:

  • Location
  • Season
  • Type of activity being performed

The workers most exposed include, but are not limited to:

  • Mine workers
  • Transportation workers
  • Postal workers
  • Landscaping workers
  • Agricultural workers
  • Fire-fighters
  • Fabricators, such as workers working with glass, bricks, and ceramics

2. Air pollution

Changes in weather patterns may increase the frequency and severity of air pollutants in the atmosphere. Additionally, increased ambient temperatures can also increase ambient concentrations of several pollutants, such as ground-level ozone. An increase in the presence of air pollutants in the atmosphere can exacerbate the symptoms of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in workers. Ground-level ozone can also enter buildings, which could impact indoor air quality. For more on the dangers associated with poor indoor air quality, check out Indoor Air Quality: The Invisible Hazard in Every Workplace.

The respiratory effects of ground-level ozone include:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Inflammation of the mucous membranes
  • Irritations
  • Reduced respiratory functions
  • Aggravation of existing chronic diseases
  • Increased reactivity to irritating agents, which can lead to an increased number of asthma attacks

Factors that can exacerbate the effects of air pollutants on workers’ health include:

  • Environmental concentrations of the air pollutants
  • Workers’ duration of exposure to the air pollutant
  • Workers’ respiratory rates

The industries where workers are most subjected to major exposure to air pollutants are the and construction, landscaping, public services and transportation industries.

3. Extreme weather events

Extreme weather events include natural disasters, such as floods, droughts, monsoons, wildfire, etc., which are becoming more and more frequent and intense as the Earth’s climate changes. These extreme weather events can have multiple effects on occupational health and safety. For instance, studies have shown that thunderstorms can increase workers’ exposures to allergens, which can exacerbate asthma. Heavy rainstorms can cause flooding, which can increase the prevalence of communicable diseases. Extreme weather events can also have indirect impacts on workers’ mental health in the form of post-traumatic stress disorders—in the case of emergency response workers in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Factors that increased workers’ risk of injuries associated with extreme weather events are:

  • The type of occupational activity
  • The location where the activity is carried out

Industries whose workers are at the greatest risk of exposure to the hazards associated with extreme weather events include:

  • Construction
  • Fishing
  • Tourism
  • Farming
  • Transportation
  • Healthcare
  • Emergency services

4. Communicable vector-borne and zoonotic diseases

The increase in the Earth’s temperature not only leads to the development of new pathogens and disease vectors, but also impacts on incubation rates, geographical distribution and transmission seasons of disease-carrying animals. This in turn affects occupational health and safety by increasing the incidence of infectious diseases among workers. For instance, chikungunya and dengue are not mosquito-borne diseases, which were not previously prevalent in the United States.

The main factors that contribute to the development of communicable vector-borne and zoonotic diseases are:

  • They type of occupational activity
  • The work environment

The highest risk industries include:

  • Agriculture
  • Forestry
  • Fishery
  • Construction
  • Mining
  • Oil and gas
  • People who perform necropsies on animals

Implications for the Future?

The impact of climate change on the workforce is significant. These changes have the potential to both directly and indirectly affect the health and well-being of workers. More research is needed to better understand these potential risks so that strategies may be developed to mitigate, and respond or adapt to current or anticipated impacts. Furthermore, it is recommended that future research take a multidisciplinary approach and examine potential risk by characterizing them according to hazard, occupation and geographical location.