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Beat the Heat

Climate change, worker safety, and productivity

February 26, 2021 Photo

Climate change continues to be an active topic in all our lives, and, according to NASA and NOAA, this has been the hottest decade on record. 

The costs of this phenomenon have so far been staggering. From 2016 to 2019, the U.S. has experienced disaster costs exceeding $150 billion per year, compared with approximately $16 billion per year (adjusted for inflation) 30 years ago. According to the EPA’s Climate Change Impacts and Risk Analysis project, as well as the Climate Impact Lab, two of the largest impacts will be from reduced labor productivity and mortality, so let’s explore this relationship.

With rising temperatures, one of the biggest impacts to workers will be related to dangers of heat stress. Workers at risk of heat stress include outdoor workers and workers in hot environments, such as firefighters, bakery workers, farmers, construction workers, miners, boiler room workers, and factory workers. Workers at greater risk of heat stress include those who are 65 years of age or older, overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or take medications that may be affected by extreme heat. Physically demanding work, both outdoor and indoor, places greater risks of exposure resulting in greater risks.

Climate change-related exposures most likely to differentially affect workers in the U.S. and globally include heat, ozone, hydrocarbons, other chemicals, pathogenic microorganisms, vector-borne diseases, violence, and wildfires. The heat index is another important consideration. This involves the relative humidity along with air temperature. Hot and humid air does not contain as much oxygen, and combining this with increased pollutants like ozone can exacerbate respiratory conditions resulting in lost time and production.

Other heat-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, cramps, and rashes—and even death—are more likely to occur. 

Heat exposure on the job also increases the potential for injuries related to loss of grip because of sweat, fogged eyewear, and increased physical and cognitive fatigue. Fatigue-related production loss can also increase from warm nights causing poor sleep. A report by Kjellstrom in 2016 stated production loss of 15-20 percent may be lost in heat-exposed jobs.

As areas of warmer weather have increased, so has the incidence of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. These conditions can result in lost time and production for both indoor and outdoor workers, and exposures are not limited to the workplace. 

Increasing wildfires are also thought to be related to climate changes. Greater periods and severity of drought conditions have made this danger a growing concern and risk factor for workers. These hazards result in illness and injury to firefighters, but also to surrounding areas due to ash and other pollutants. These irritants and pollutants can impact both outdoor and indoor workers, and lead to reduced production. Monitoring of air quality must remain a priority. 

Other extreme weather patterns, such as flooding and cyclones, are resulting in increased injuries to first responders, outdoor workers, and clean-up and remediation workers. It is also important to note that these extreme weather conditions include severe cold exposures as well. 

Psychological effects of climate change should also be considered, such as a rise in PTSD resulting from increased weather disasters. In addition, the interruption of business and availability of work results in reduced or lost wages adding stress to workers. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and lost production. 

In a study, “Advancing the framework for considering the effects of climate change on worker safety and health,” Schulte has outlined many steps in a framework to address occupational health and safety. This framework describes the need for more research to increase our knowledge of these effect; and identification of vulnerable workers, hazards, and mitigation measures. Importantly, the need for employer education to become sufficiently prepared and empowered to guide employee protections will be a guide to success. Occupational safety and health management is another key to success. For example, the CDC recommends providing an acclimatization schedule, particularly for new workers, to allow for physiologic adaptations to heat that employers should be aware of and follow.

PPE may be necessary, but can also increase heat burden by holding in heat or increasing physical effort. Personal cooling systems, such as water or air-cooled garments, can be employed where appropriate, and engineering controls may be used to manage the work environment. 

Wearable technology can provide solutions, as well. OSHA-NIOSH have introduced a Heat Safety Tool app that provides recommendations to prevent heat-related illnesses and reduce heat stress in outdoor workers. It can download local heat index data and provide recommendations for a specific risk level. 

Supervisor training is essential to monitor and recognize warning signs and provide assistance when needed. Simple solutions like water, rest, and shade are easily applied and can be mandated. 

As more is understood about the complexities of climate change, we must continue to consider and attempt to anticipate the impacts to workers’ health and safety and how best to protect them while maximizing productivity.

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About The Authors
Mark S. Williams

Mark S. Williams is a medical director with The Hartford.  mark.williams@thehartford.com

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