Climate change and worker safety and health: the time to act is now

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Climate change is changing everything. It is already posing a serious threat to the safety and health of workers in all regions of the world. Workers across different sectors are exposed to climate change-related hazards, with outdoor workers at particular risk as they carry out heavy labour in hot climates.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has recently published a global report, Ensuring Safety and Health at Work in a Changing Climate, highlighting critical new data on the impacts of climate change on the safety and health of workers worldwide. Climate change results in a cocktail of hazards, exposing workers to excessive heat, extreme weather, UV radiation, air pollution, an increase in vector-borne diseases and an elevated use of pesticides.

ILO: "It is estimated that at least 2.41 billion workers are exposed annually to excessive heat. Photograph: iStock/golfcphoto

It is estimated that at least 2.41 billion workers are exposed annually to excessive heat. In addition, exposure to excessive heat at work leads to around 22.85 million occupational injuries and 18,970 work-related deaths every year. Excessive heat can lead to heatstroke, kidney injuries, increased accidents, mental health impacts and death.

Moreover, a staggering 1.6 billion workers are exposed annually to solar UV radiation, with more than 18,960 workers dying due to non-melanoma skin cancer.

Extreme weather events have claimed 2.06 million lives due to climate and water hazards from 1970 to 2019. Furthermore, 860,000 work-related deaths annually are attributable to air pollution. Vectors once confined to specific regions and seasons are now spreading geographically and have longer transmission seasons due to changing weather patterns. Outdoor workers such as farmers, foresters, landscapers, painters, roofers, pavers and construction workers are particularly at risk for diseases such as malaria, Lyme disease and dengue.

Changing weather patterns are affecting the yields and quality of crops, which has been accompanied by an increase in the use of agrochemicals. More than 873 million workers globally are employed in agriculture and are likely to be exposed to agrochemical hazards. Such workers can suffer from poisoning, cancer, neurotoxicity or reproductive disorders, among other health impacts. It is estimated that more than 300,000 deaths due to pesticide poisoning occur annually (Jørs et al. 2018).

Climate-related hazards

Each of these climate-related hazards is significant on its own; however, they are interconnected, resulting in a cocktail of hazards for many workers. The cumulative effect may pose an unprecedented threat to humanity, and we do not have the full picture of the real impact yet. This highlights the multidimensional crisis that lies before us.

National government responses to address these hazards vary. Many countries have implemented new legislation to specifically address excessive heat in the working environment, for example through maximum temperature limits, bans or regulations on daytime working hours, and guidelines for adaptive measures at the workplace level, such as the provision of water and rest breaks.

However, as climate change hazards evolve and intensify, it will be necessary to re-evaluate existing legislation or create new regulations and guidance. Some groups of workers may be especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change and could therefore need more specific and targeted protection.

Tripartite social dialogue between governments and social partners is a critical element for ensuring policies are effective and inclusive at the workplace level. Occupational safety and health (OSH) policies and programmes should be co-ordinated among government departments to ensure policy coherence. For example, it would be beneficial to integrate OSH needs and concerns into public health and environmental health campaigns, as well as heat and climate action plans.

The scientific evidence base regarding climate change and OSH, while growing, is still limited in many critical areas. Research is urgently needed to evaluate the effectiveness of OSH measures in different countries and sectors, and to estimate the economic costs and benefits of such policies and interventions. We need to know what works and what doesn’t, in order to propose evidence-based policy. Furthermore, although a shift to green and sustainable technologies is required, this may create new OSH challenges, especially if appropriate OSH protections have not been implemented.

The ILO has more than 40 international labour standards specifically related to OSH, which offer policy solutions that can help address the effects of climate change on communities, workers and enterprises. Noting the importance of this topic, the ILO is preparing for upcoming tripartite discussions on this policy issue, which will bring together governments, workers and employers in a spirit of social dialogue.

Workplace issue

Climate change is not only a health issue, but it is also a workplace issue due to its immense impact on workers and the world of work. In the broader context, it is also a social justice issue, but above all, it is a human rights issue. Workers have the right to enjoy a safe and healthy working environment, which has been adopted by the ILO as the fifth fundamental principle and right at work.

Workers and workplaces must be at the centre of climate change action. Heat action plans must prioritise workers’ safety and health, and legislation on OSH needs to mainstream climate change hazards as a matter of urgency.

As many regions of the world grapple with oppressive heatwaves and the northern hemisphere finds itself on the brink of an ominous summer season, we find ourselves in a critical moment. We are truly in a sprint to save lives, and the time to act is NOW.

Halshka Graczyk, Lacye Groening, Andreas Hoibl and Wafaa Alzaanin are specialists in the Occupational Safety and Health Branch of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The ILO is devoted to promoting social justice and internationally recognised human and labour rights, pursuing its founding mission that social justice is essential to universal and lasting peace.

The only tripartite UN agency, since 1919 the ILO has brought together governments, employers and workers of 187 Member States, to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all.

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