Assistant Editor, SHP & IFSEC Global

November 9, 2021

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Impact of climate change on workers’ health and safety

With the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in full swing, SHP looks at the importance of the event on a global scale, while also focusing on how the effects of climate change are seeping into the workplace, exploring what businesses can do to safeguard staff and contribute to the global effort.

The main goals of COP26, drafted to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, are as follows:

  • Secure global net zero by 2050 and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
  • Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
  • Mobilise finance – to deliver the first two goals, developed countries must mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year
  • Work together to deliver – countries must accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society.

According to the BBC, the Queen has urged world leaders at the COP26 climate summit to “achieve true statesmanship” and create a “safer, stabler future” for the planet.

A review carried out by Environmental Health, argues that, in the UK, climate change will directly influence health outcomes through changing exposure to heat and cold, air pollution, pollen, food safety risks, disruptions to access to and functioning of health services and facilities, emerging infections, flooding and other reasons such as water-borne diseases and increased exposure to UV radiation, as well as indirectly via for example changing prices of and access to food and energy.

Not only are businesses being encouraged to think about how they will contribute in the race to hit climate change targets, but employers are also being faced with a growing need to deploy strategies to manage the risk climate change poses to the health and safety of their employees.

Climate-related occupational hazards people may experience in the workplace:

Exposure to extreme heat

Exposure to air pollution

  • Exposure to polluted air has been linked to the development of both acute and chronic health conditions such as, heart disease, respiratory diseases, and allergic disorders.

Extreme weather

  • Extreme conditions such as floods, landslides storms, lightening and drought are all associated with occupational deaths, injuries, diseases, and mental stress.

Biological hazards

  • Climate conditions such as temperature and rainfall affect the prevalence and distribution of vectors, pathogens, hosts, and allergens. Associated health impacts include asthma and allergies triggered by pollen; mould-related asthma; skin and lung irritation from poisonous plants. The most vulnerable occupational groups include outdoor workers, emergency responders, construction workers, and health care workers.

Indoor climate

  • High temperatures increase the need for climate-controlled buildings. Building-related illnesses sometimes related to indoor air quality, may occur, especially in buildings with air conditioning, water damage, or energy-efficient ‘tight’ buildings with microbial-contaminated humidifiers or air handlers that use biocides.

Moving Forward

In a report published by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, Professor Lora Fleming says: “Adaptation will have a central role in reducing climate impacts and hence health effects. But the co-benefits for our health in tackling climate change are potentially a virtuous circle.”

Though climate change is ultimately a long-term, global issue, there are key strategies individuals, communities and employers can implement today to reduce global warming and safeguard the physical health of, not only themselves, but the individuals they encounter daily.

Sustainability authority Bureau Veritas is urging UK businesses to ‘make changes happen’ as it supports the commitments and ambitions coming out of the UN Climate Change Conference.

Julie-Anna Smith, South & West Europe Sustainability Services Leader at Bureau Veritas, said: “Irrespective of how quickly some of these pledges (made at COP26) become a legal requirement, or how much funding is allocated, UK businesses all have a role to play in making change.

“What is clear in all the commitments made and discussed to date is that transparency and accountability is key – there are processes, procedures and action that needs to happen now to ensure businesses are ahead of the game when it comes to potential new regulations coming down the line.”

The fourth day of COP26 (Wednesday 3 November 2021) saw global leaders gather to discuss mobilising public and private finance flows at scale for mitigation and adaption. Key commitments to have come out of day three of COP26 include confirmation that the Government is drawing up plans for a ‘verification scheme’ for large businesses to publish its net zero transition plans, which will safeguard against greenwashing.

This means that most of the UK’s largest firms and financial institutions will be required to show how they intend to hit climate change targets, in-line with the UK’s net zero ambitions.

The aim of these plans is to increase transparency and accountability within UK businesses that the investments they select consider the planet and societal impact. It paves the way to accelerate responsible change and standardise the disclosure, reporting and assurance of sustainability metrics.

Key Updates

Company climate disclosures to become mandatory 

From 6 April 2022, subject to Parliamentary approval, it will become mandatory for large UK-registered companies to disclose climate-related risks.

In line with recommendations from the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TFCD) the new requirements will apply to financial institutions along with private companies that employ more than 500 people and with more than £500 million in turnover.

The mandatory disclosures are designed to increase the quantity and quality of climate-related reporting among UK businesses and to encourage more companies to assess the risks and opportunities posed by climate change, including within their supply chains.

SMEs urged to take Climate Pledge

Throughout COP26, businesses of all sizes were encouraged to sign up to the globally-recognised UN Race to Zero Climate Commitment which includes a focus on supporting SMEs to make a difference via the  SME Climate Hub.

SMEs that take the pledge commit to:

  • Halving greenhouse gas emissions before 2030
  • Achieving net zero emissions before 2050
  • Disclosing their progress yearly.

SMEs make up 99% of UK businesses and business & industry accounts for a quarter of UK emissions so the efforts of smaller companies are essential but smaller businesses can lack the resources and knowledge needed to make a difference.

Once businesses have taken the pledge, the SME Climate Hub provides support in the form of tools to help organisation understand their emissions, how to tackle them, and how to share what they’re doing with their customers and community.

Suggestions for how construction SMEs can reduce emissions include:

  • Getting involved with CO2nstruct Zero
  •  Designing out carbon
  • Delivering on low-carbon heat
  • Retrofitting
  • Making sites more efficient
  • Using low carbon materials.

PM opening statement at COP26 Press conference: 14 November 2021

On the final day of the summit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a statement concluding the conference.

“We came to COP with a call for real action on coal, cars, cash and trees and that’s exactly what we’ve got,” he says.

“Before Paris, the world was on course for a devastating four degrees of warming this century. After Paris, we were heading for three degrees. At Glasgow we’ve turned that dial down to around two degrees.”

Boris continues: “That’s still far too high. But for all our disagreements the world is undeniably heading in the right direction.”

He concludes: “There’s still a long journey ahead of us and very little time to complete it. But COP26 has shown us that we can do this. We can end our reliance on coal and fossil fuels. We can put the brakes on runaway climate change. And we can preserve our unique planet for generations to come.”

To read the UK Health Alliance report in full, click here.

Use this link to calculate what the effects of climate change might look like, regarding extreme weather, in your area.

Watch SHP’s Connect 2021 webinar: ‘Benefits of clean air in indoor working environments’, below:

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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