New Occupational Health and Safety Hazards in the Face of a Changing Climate

by Nina Koivula 20 Sep. 2019

Climate change as a threat for health and safety at work

Global temperatures are rising and the frequency of extreme weather events is increasing. It is suggested that climate change will have an impact on all occupational health risks except risks arising from artificial radiation and noise pollution. This impact will be caused by the increasing temperatures and severity of other climate-related phenomena as well as changes to the chemical and biological circumstances. Outdoor workers are not the only workers who are impacted by the climate; transport and manufacturing workers are among the potentially most affected groups.

The changes affecting the global climate are likely to have a twofold impact on the health of workers, by altering the frequency and seriousness of the health problems which are influenced by the climate as well as causing new health risks in places that were not previously affected.

There are two additional elements to consider when assessing occupational health and safety: the degradation of the built environment and novel types of (green) industry which can imply previously unknown health and safety risks.

Heat-related hazards

The most obvious occupational consequence of climate change is the increase in heat-related hazards. Workers in certain climate-vulnerable countries — such as Bangladesh — are already affected by extreme heat, and it is estimated that up to three percent of daylight work hours have been lost. These heat-related productivity losses will be aggravated in the future. Despite any corrective action, it is estimated that by 2100, the losses experienced by economies more susceptible to extremely warm temperatures will be two to three times bigger than today. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that by 2030, the climate-related global productivity losses can amount to over 2 trillion US dollars. For additional information on direct heat stress, please refer to my colleague Elise Saade’s post “High Risk Sectors in the Face of Heat Stress” on the topic.

Hazards other than direct heat effects

However, rising temperature is not the only climate factor that can have potentially catastrophic consequences for occupational health and safety. Other climate-related hazards — such as powerful storms and winds, drought-induced forest fires, flooding and associated landslides — are also projected to increase in frequency. Both indoor and outdoor workers will be impacted. Poor air quality can lead to respiratory problems and the onset of allergies. Extreme heat, extreme weather events and economic strain associated with climate change are likely to have adverse mental health impacts.

Vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, are yet another serious concern. As climate change alters their ecology, vector-borne diseases are likely to spread to new territories. They may also become more frequent in areas that are already affected. Direct heat effects compound the risks arising from vector-borne diseases: for example, if the daytime heat is too intense, outside workers may have to work in the cooler hours of the day. This means they are further exposed to certain diseases spread by mosquitoes.

Companies working with chemicals should know that occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals is projected to increase as a result of heat. Chemicals evaporate faster at higher temperatures, making workers more susceptible to poisoning through chemical inhalation.

Further adverse health effects associated with climate change include exposure to UV radiation, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) as well as violence at the workplace.

How to address these risks as an employer

It is advisable that employers begin addressing the relevant hazards as soon as possible. For example, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) has recommended that stakeholders increase awareness of the effects that climate change has on health. This can be done through training and information campaigns. In addition, companies should begin to incorporate the effects of climate change, whether predicted or already noticeable, in their health and safety risk assessments and take appropriate preventive action.