Workers are frequently the first to be exposed to the effects of climate change, and they are exposed for longer periods of time and at higher intensities than the broader population. Given this, when it comes to climate change's adverse effects on workers, disease or injury may be among the first indicators. In order to determine how these climate events may affect workers' health and safety, it is necessary to characterize them and develop plans for mitigating, responding, and adapting to the current and predicted consequences. It is expected that the number of individuals employed in the most affected occupations will continue to grow.
Workers most affected by climate change
Agricultural workers, construction workers, emergency responders, commercial fishermen, firefighters, transportation workers, and other workers exposed to outdoor weather conditions, particularly those performing physically demanding work for extended periods of time are among the groups most affected by climate change. However, climate change can have an impact on indoor employees as well, as seen by increased heat and air pollution exposure among manufacturing workers. Some employees, such as migrant workers, unorganized workers, and day laborers, may be more exposed to the health consequences of climate change than others, such as farmers.
Asthma, respiratory allergies, and airway diseases; cancer; cardiovascular disease and stroke; heat-related morbidity and mortality; chronic kidney diseases of non-traditional origin; mental health and stress-related disorders; neurological diseases and disorders; water-borne diseases; and vector-borne, zoonotic, and other infectious diseases are just a few of the potential health consequences for workers who may be affected by a changing climate.
There are a variety of potential issues exacerbated by climate change that can strongly impact workers such as:
Temperatures are rising all across the world, compounding the already-existing heat burden in tropical areas and beyond, which has implications for both indoor and outdoor work situations. Greater occupational heat stress may be caused by higher temperatures, more frequent periods of heat which may result in an increase in occurrences of heat-related illnesses, lower chemical tolerance, and weariness. Increased temperature can also result in decreased cognitive function as well as an increased risk of injury or failures in safety precautions. Apart from that, heat can play a role in many other severe or deadly injuries or diseases, such as those caused by falls among others. As the climate warms and more extreme weather events are projected in the future, heat exposure and heat stress are becoming a major issue in terms of employee safety. When the average temperature varies only a little, it has the potential to result in a significant rise in the number of deaths and cases of severe heat or cold-related diseases.
A complex relationship exists between air pollution and climate change, with the former being connected to acute and chronic health impacts such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, and allergy disorders. For example, high temperatures can cause levels of air pollution to rise, such as ground-level ozone and wildfire smoke, among other things. Climate change may cause workers to be exposed to higher levels of air pollutants, whether they are indoor or outdoor, though the existence and degree of such effects may vary depending on the local climate and other environmental factors.
Extreme weather conditions
The number of extreme weather occurrences and natural disasters — including floods, landslides, storms, and lightning, as well as droughts — is increasing, as is the demand for emergency services. Consequently, those participating in rescue and cleaning will be exposed to potentially hazardous conditions on a more frequent basis as a result of weather disasters. The infrastructure, such as electrical lines, roads, public transit, and buildings, may also be damaged as a result of extreme weather occurrences. Workers could be placed in new or unfamiliar situations, increasing their chances of suffering a severe accident, contracting an illness, or experiencing mental stress. When mobility, electricity, communication, food, and shelter are disrupted, some workers may be more vulnerable to violence. These occurrences can raise the likelihood of suffering a catastrophic injury.
It is well established that the risk of wildfire is directly correlated with climate, and climate change is expected to significantly increase wildfire activity. The increase in wildfires and the lengthening of the fire season will necessitate the reaction of an increasing number of firefighters, including volunteers. Burns, heat-related illnesses, smoke inhalation, and injuries from slips, trips, and falls are all potential risks that wildland firefighters must deal with on a daily basis. Firefighters who work in the wild are in danger of rhabdomyolysis, a disorder caused by an increase in core body temperature and the consequent breakdown of muscle cells, which can cause them to pass out into their bloodstream.
The habitats of vectors, diseases, hosts, and allergens can be altered as a result of fluctuating temperatures and rainfall patterns. Outdoor workers, emergency response personnel, as well as health care providers may be affected by the increased prevalence of water-borne and food-borne infections. Increased frequency of storms and floods could result in an increase in the number of mold-infested homes, as well as increased exposure among remediation and construction employees. Climate change, namely rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, may accelerate the growth and spread of poison ivy and other dangerous plants. Temperature variations have an effect on insects, boosting their populations and extending their transmission seasons leading to a higher risk of mosquito-borne infections such as West Nile virus, dengue fever, chikungunya virus, malaria virus, and Zika virus as well as tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease for outdoor workers.
Natural catastrophes such as hurricanes, floods, lightning, and earthquakes, among others, can cause industrial disasters if proper precautionary measures are not put into place. Chemical plants are particularly vulnerable to damage from storms, flooding, and erosion, all of which are becoming more frequent as a result of climate change. Exceptional weather conditions can cause industrial disasters such as explosions, fires, and large-scale chemical spills, as well as long-term chemical leakage into the environment's air, water, and soil.
Mitigate risks posed by climate change
Following the implementation of heat illness prevention regulations in several states, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is said to be working on implementing an enforcement initiative as part of a National Emphasis Program on preventing heat-related illness to further safeguard workers' health.
However, even without clear regulations on a national level, employers can still take matters into their own hands and consider a risk-based strategy for controlling heat illness especially for employees who operate outdoors or in hot circumstances indoors.
The first step is developing an understanding of employees' working conditions. There is currently a communication gap between workers and managers, owing to the fact that managers do not often experience sweltering circumstances in the same way as their employees. For example, if workers are required to conduct intensive labor in bright sunshine while wearing heavy gear or personal protective equipment (PPE), even mild temperatures can put them at risk of heat illness. Organizations and their employees should collaborate to conduct heat stress risk assessments of job activities that take place both indoors and outside. An at-risk screening checklist, such as the "Heat Stress Observation Checklist" developed by the HSE UK (the United Kingdom's counterpart of OSHA), assists in identifying and prioritizing heat disease preventive initiatives. It will be easier to discover latent risks and implement risk mitigation measures if organizations involve their employees in the assessment of heat-related risks. It will also be easier to understand the obstacles that rising temperatures provide to job execution.
After doing a risk assessment and identifying employees who are at risk for heat stress, employers must establish and implement a documented heat disease prevention program that strikes a balance between job requirements and worker safety in order to promote healthier work environments.
A heat disease prevention program should include policies and procedures on the following topics:
- Managers, supervisors, and employees have specific roles and duties in the program.
- Work activities that are at risk
- Measures for preparation, prevention, and protection
- Weather conditions and personnel health are closely monitored on a regular basis.
- Training and public awareness, including prevention measures and the identification of risk factors and symptoms of heat illness, are essential.
Workers who are experiencing symptoms of heat illness should have an emergency response plan in place. An important factor in managing worker safety is the frequent examination of corporate policies, processes, and contracts that may be associated with increased worker hazard or liability. Incorporating this consideration into contract negotiations or periodic internal procedure reviews can aid in the modification of business rules that are detrimental to worker safety.