Health and safety at work in a changing climate

Anna Triponel

April 28, 2024
Our key takeaway: The link between climate change and workers’ health and safety is inextricable. And millions of workers are already experiencing the effects of climate change (excessive heat, UV radiation, extreme weather events, air pollution, vector-borne diseases and agrochemicals) on their health and wellbeing, which can at times be fatal. For instance, at least 2.41 billion workers are exposed to excessive heat annually. Every year, 22.85 million occupational injuries and 18,970 work-related deaths are attributable to excessive heat. And it’s not just the physical effects of climate change that creates severe risks for occupational safety and health (OSH). The transition to cleaner energy and technologies can also create OSH risks for workers due to the use of hazardous chemicals, new work processes and the handling of new equipment. Therefore, considering OSH risks as we move towards cleaner technology is critical to ensuring a just transition. It’s not a question of if climate change and climate actions impact workers’ health and safety, but how and what can be done to prevent and mitigate these harms.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) published its global report on Ensuring safety and health at work in a changing climate (April 2024):

  • Climate change has a significant impact on workers’ health, safety and wellbeing:  The report highlights how climate change is already impacting the health and well-being of millions of workers around the world. At least 2.41 billion workers are exposed to excessive heat annually. Further: “an estimated 22.85 million occupational injuries, 18,970 deaths and 2.09 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) are attributable to excessive heat alone” every year. Agricultural workers and other outdoor workers are exposed to hot climates and so are at higher risk of health and safety issues. Despite this, occupational safety and health (OSH) policies and practices have failed to address climate-related risks and impacts to workers. The economic impact of climate change-related health and safety risks is significant: “the accumulated financial loss due to heat-related illnesses alone is expected to reach US$2.4 trillion by 2030” even in a 1.5°C above preindustrial levels by 2100 scenario.
  • Six ways in which climate change impacts OSH and how OSH is critical to the just transition: The report outlines the six key impacts of climate change on workers’ health and safety: excessive heat’ ultraviolet (UV) radiation; extreme weather events; workplace air pollution; vector-borne diseases; and agrochemicals. Billions of workers are exposed to these impacts and thousands, if not millions in some cases, die as a result. Over 18,960 work-related deaths per year are attributable to UV radiation; 2.06 million deaths due to weather, climate and water hazards from 1970 to 2019; 860,000 work-related deaths per year attributable to air pollution (outdoor workers only); over 15,170 work-related deaths per year attributable to parasitic and vector diseases; and over 300,000 deaths annually due to pesticide poisoning. The report emphasises how considering OSH is critical to a just transition because green and sustainable technologies may create new OSH risks and challenges. For instance, solar panels, compact fluorescent lamps and lithium-ion batteries contain toxic chemicals which, if not handled properly, can harm workers’ health.
  • Recommendations for companies: The report highlights how businesses can play an important role in climate change mitigation strategies. For instance, they can reduce their workplace emissions by: 1) “embracing passive or renewable energy-based heating and cooling systems, improving energy efficiency and addressing other pressing issues, like methane leaks”; 2) “exploiting reuse opportunities from waste”; 3) “reducing the carbon impact of their supply chains”; 4) “reducing the amount and impact of business transportation”; and 5) “introducing eco-friendly workplace initiatives which aim to reduce the environmental impact of OSH such as using sustainable equipment and creating workplace recycling programmes.” Companies can also roll out training programmes to “educate employers and workers on the risks of climate change and practical protection measures based on climate change assessments and the hierarchy of controls.”

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