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Dr Karen McDonnell is Head of Global Relations at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA). She is also the immediate past president of IOSH.
May 15, 2024

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The impact of climate change on occupational safety and health

Dr Karen McDonnell, Head of Global Relations at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), says that businesses need to act now to protect workers from the effects of climate change.

It was Harry S Truman, President of the USA, who coined the phrase “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”, but when it comes to unsafe or unhealthy working conditions, how many people actually have the privilege of being able to walk away?

A new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) has found that more than 70% of the world’s 3.4billion workers will face climate change-related health hazards as part of their work, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses, kidney dysfunction and mental health conditions.

Productivity loss 

The report highlights six major climate change-related threats to occupational safety and health, including extreme weather events, UV radiation, which is predicted to affect 1.6 billion workers with more than 18,960 work-related deaths annually from nonmelanoma skin cancer, and heat stress.

The ILO estimates that 2.2 per cent of total working hours worldwide will be lost to high temperatures by 2030 – a productivity loss equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs and an estimated cost of US $2,400 billion.

Around 1.6 billion workers are likely to be exposed to workplace air pollution, resulting in up to 860,000 work-related deaths among outdoor workers annually, the report says, while over 870 million workers in agriculture are predicted to be exposed to pesticides, with more than 300,000 deaths attributed to pesticide poisoning annually. Another estimated 15,000 work-related deaths will occur every year due to exposure to parasitic and vector-borne diseases.

The ILO says that many workers have already been made ill or died because the occupational safety and health (OSH) world has “struggled to keep up” with the constantly evolving risks from climate change.

It is calling for “collaborative efforts” to develop and implement effective mitigation and adaptation measures to protect workers, including new/updated legislation and guidance, alongside research and building a stronger evidence base. The report also warns that OSH risks need to be monitored and controlled in the shift towards greener industries and technologies going forward.

Heat stress, its causes and approaches to risk management are ‘known knowns’, and as climate change continues to impact on workers around the world, it is increasingly important to apply risk control measures that have stood the test of time.

Businesses need to pause, reflect and reset ways of working to make provision for the impact of climate change. Heat stress can affect those working outdoors in high temperatures, for instance in sectors such as agriculture, construction, refuse collection and tourism, but also employees in indoor environments which are hot because of the processes being carried out, restricted spaces and/or inadequate ventilation.

Some examples of indoor jobs which can involve exposure to heat include foundries, laundries, commercial kitchens and bakeries, boiler rooms, glass and rubber manufacturing plants, compressed-air tunnels and power plants.

It is crucial that employers look at environmental, job and person-centred factors to create risk assessments that protect people – and review these routinely.

According to a survey undertaken by Gallagher in 2023, half of businesses operating in the UK are already impacted by climate change, with the most common effects being disruption from extreme weather events, including flooding, storms and heatwaves (52%), followed by climate change related increased operating costs (47%), supply chain issues (39%) and physical damage (35%). The research also found that 15% of businesses have already moved premises due to climate change, while 16% have been forced to change their business model.

Wider impacts

Climate change will also affect our safety beyond the workplace. Research published in the BMJ’s Injury Prevention journal has looked at the impact on water safety, finding that “climate change is already reshaping the nature of drowning globally”.

floodThe report sets out several factors that could lead to a substantial rise in the number of drowning deaths, including hotter temperatures, droughts and periods of extreme heat leading to more people entering the water to cool down, as well as an increase in weather-related disasters, including cyclones and flooding.

The research cites figures from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters that shows the number of floods globally doubled from 1980-99 to 2000-19 and that between 2000 and 2019 there were over 100,000 fatalities due to floods.

Drowning could also increase because of the wider impacts of climate change, such as damaged infrastructure, climate-related migration and slower economic development.

Understanding the impact of climate change on people, businesses and communities who can’t “get out of the kitchen” is a subject we all should take ownership of. Whether it be the monitoring and sharing of information on local weather conditions or scheduling work to minimise exposure to high temperatures, supported by engineering controls and a buddy system.

In the workplace, while employers are of course responsible for managing health and safety risks in their businesses, workers also have a duty to co-operate with employers and to take care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their actions. Taking ownership as a worker of your role in ensuring control measures and safe systems of work are not deviated from is vital.

The phrase “we are all in this together” has been used in many various ways over the years, from song lyrics to political rhetoric. However, there is nothing more certain than that as people on this planet, we are all indeed in this together.

How is your organisation altering its approach to mitigate the risks linked to climate change?

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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