Exploring the Impact of Climate Change on Worker Health and Safety

Exploring the Impact of Climate Change on Worker Health and Safety

The climate crisis significantly endangers worker health and safety across various industries, necessitating immediate adaptation strategies and legislative support.

The climate crisis impacts habitat health and biodiversity. The sentiment is true for engineers, academics and health care workers alike. Climate change side effects seep into every corner of life more annually, including workplaces. The repercussions expand until they diminish workers' health and safety. How do these concerns correlate, and how will alleviating environmental burdens improve occupational wellness?

Effects of Climate Change on Worker Health

Rising temperatures and extreme weather are only a couple of influences on health. Increasing natural disasters and harsh outdoor conditions make it challenging to thrive on the clock. Heat alone will impact an estimated 70 percent of workers worldwide.

Threats like hurricanes, wildfires, blizzards and dust storms compromise stability even before the event. Outdoor workers have more challenges since they bear the weight of the elements. Climate change also amplifies pollution. Indoor and outdoor air quality is in jeopardy, arriving in higher concentrations.

These factors are reasons why health ailments are more prevalent than ever, including:

  • Respiratory compromises
  • Skin-related conditions and burns
  • Heat stroke or exhaustion
  • Waterborne illness
  • Mental health concerns
  • Cancer
  • Asthma
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Dangers related to proximity to natural disaster-prone areas

Occupational Risks and Adaptation Strategies

The connection between a person, climate change and reduced workplace health is proven. What are the most affected sectors, and how can companies and policies protect the workforce?

Outdoor workers are exposed to environmental risks, such as UV radiation, air pollution and intense heat. They are more likely to encounter invasive species that carry toxic microorganisms and unknown illnesses. This includes construction, forestry and urban infrastructure.

Agriculture and fisheries are also affected since the volatile climate upends their work. The Gulf of Maine has witnessed oceanic temperatures rise 99 percent faster than the global ocean, threatening aquatic life and forcing workers to interact with dangerous waters.

The health care sector is always at high risk, but it is worse with climate change. Infectious diseases spread faster with increased indoor air and water pollution. A lack of infection isolation is part of the problem because facilities may not consider how climate change exacerbates it.

Truckers and public transit workers drive in intense natural conditions. Their jobs require them to be on the road regardless of conditions, so they may be inclined to drive in severe weather because of this obligation.

Several other notable sectors face climate challenges:

  • Manufacturing and industry. Poor ventilation, heat stress and supply chain disruptions caused by climate-induced material shortages.
  • Tourism and hospitality. Natural disasters near certain destinations and unsustainable tourism practices.
  • Water treatment. Interaction with foreign contaminants and pollutants.

Current Safety Guidelines and Regulation

Legislative action must support health and safety with climate-considerate standards. Several institutions work on more comprehensive policies, with The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) having the most prominent hand. It has several campaigns and rules to boost workplace wellness, including an Emergency Action Plan standard requiring companies to have strategies to deal with severe weather.

The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) has many suggestions. The Worker Safety in Extreme Heat and Wildfire Smoke Exposure resources prepare to fight these pressures.

Others include:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Provides models for clean air and water and disaster preparedness resources.
  • International Labor Organization (ILO). Has the Decent Work Agenda to promise safe conditions.
  • American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). Contains ventilation and energy efficiency standards to improve indoor environments.

Improvement Strategies

Workers need restorative breaks to recharge mentally and physically. Outdoor staff need access to shaded and air-conditioned spaces. OSHA promotes this with its "Water. Rest. Shade." campaign. Employers should offer workers training programs and help, suggesting the best ways to make the most of break time.

This includes stress management, self-care, mindfulness exercises and opportunities to connect with colleagues. The tips should supplement an already supportive mental care network. People facing climate change threats may also have eco-anxiety. This is when they experience fear and unrest about the worsening climate. Facing it every day forces them to confront this mental health concern.

All industries must invest in robust personal protective equipment (PPE). Hard hats, sun visors, glasses, cooling vests and masks are several options depending on the work environment. Though electric vehicles are not considered PPE, they are a tool that makes a critical facet of their work safer with reduced pollutants.

A climate risk emergency response plan is the most critical document for workers. They must know how to react during a crisis to protect themselves and those they work for. Urge consistent training and educational awareness based on updated assessments.

Technology and Innovation in Ensuring Worker Safety

Modern devices may assist corporations in mitigating climate change impacts on health. What options do they have?

  • Wearables. Smartwatches, patches and smart clothing to track vital signs.
  • Mobile apps. Software for self-reporting and monitoring, providing break reminders and health advice.
  • Predictive analytics. Analytics to inform companies when to schedule work based on historical weather data.
  • Drones. Monitors work sites, assessing temperature changes, pollution density and resource awareness.

Recognizing the Power of Climate Change on Workers

Climate change compromises worker safety and wellness daily. Organizations must understand how it affects businesses and threatens workers. Protecting staff means having more robust safety measures while doing everything possible to combat the climate crisis.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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