NIOSH Highlights Climate Change's Impact on Workers

NIOSH Highlights Climate Change's Impact on Workers

Jan 08, 2015

A number of worker populations, both indoors and outdoors, may be particularly vulnerable to threats from climate change. Some of these workers may include: emergency responders, health care workers, fire fighters, utility workers, farmers, and transportation workers. Climate change can amplify existing health and safety issues and new unanticipated hazards may emerge. Workers may also be exposed to conditions that the general public can elect to avoid, and workforce increases are likely in jobs that are most affected by climate change such as wildland firefighting, as well as in industries that will emerge in response to it, including renewable energy. For worker populations such as migrant workers and day laborers who may have inadequate housing or other social and economic constraints, the health effects of climate change may be additive from exposures both at work and at home.

Impacts to workers can include the direct effects of climate change associated occupational hazards such as: increased ambient temperatures, air pollution, and extreme weather. Additionally, indirect climate change associated occupational hazards are likely to occur from vector-borne diseases and expanded habitats, industrial transitions, emerging industries (e.g., renewable energy, carbon sequestration, and “green industries”), increased use of pesticides, and changes in the built environment.

These are all areas where research is needed to better understand and characterize the potential risks and develop strategies to mitigate or adapt to these hazards. A framework for considering the relationship between climate change and occupational safety and health to increase our knowledge of climate change is depicted below [Schulte and Chun 2009]. This framework outlines the multidisciplinary research necessary to better understand workers at risk by hazard, occupation, and geographic location. Although not specific to occupational safety and health, the 3rd National Climate AssessmentExternal Web Site Icon has a health chapter containing an extensive synthesis of current knowledge and gaps regarding climate change and human health. Additionally, the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chapter on human health Adobe PDF fileExternal Web Site Icon includes a section that specifically addresses climate change and occupational safety and health.

What occupational hazards are affected by climate change?

Increased ambient temperatures
Higher temperatures or longer, more frequent periods of heat may result in greater heat stress, which may lead to more cases of heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion, decreased chemical tolerance, and fatigue. There may also be indirect effects including reduced vigilance regarding safety and increased risk of injury and irritability that may lead to carelessness.

Air pollution
Elevated temperatures can increase levels of air pollution including ground-level ozone. Outdoor workers have longer exposure to air pollutants which may be linked to chronic health effects such as respiratory diseases or allergic disorders. The frequency and severity of wildfires is projected to increase resulting in higher levels of particulate matter and other air pollutants.

Extreme weather
Extreme weather events or natural disasters such as floods, landslides, storms, lightning, droughts, and wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense. Weather disasters may be associated with deaths, injuries, diseases, and mental stress. Workers involved in rescue and cleanup have more exposure to risky conditions as the frequency and severity of extreme weather events increase. Extreme weather events may also cause damage to infrastructure (e.g., power, roads, and transportation) and buildings. Workers could be put in new or unfamiliar circumstances leading to a high risk of traumatic injury. Disruptions to information technology could lead to standards of control not being applied or the inability to recognize hazards. Some workers may be at increased risk of violence if mobility, electricity, food, and shelter become compromised. Carbon monoxide poisoning may also be an issue in areas where generators and engines are being run with poor ventilation. The impact of more frequent and intense weather events on mental health and stress is another consideration.

Vector-borne diseases and expanded habitats
Changing temperatures and shifting rainfall can affect habitats of vectors, pathogens, hosts, and allergens. Increased prevalence and distribution of water-borne and food-borne pathogens could affect workers, particularly emergency responders and health care workers. Pollen may increase from earlier flowering and longer pollen seasons. Increasing numbers of hurricanes and floods could lead to more houses with mold and more remediation and construction workers exposed. Mold may lead to allergic as well as non-allergic or irritant asthma. Increasing temperatures and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may increase the growth and wider distribution of poison ivy and other poisonous plants. Changes in temperatures have also affected tick and mosquito populations increasing their populations, extending their transmission seasons, and expanding the seasons and areas they can be found. Outdoor workers may be at increased risk for mosquito-borne diseases (e.g., West Nile virus infection) and tick-borne diseases (e.g. Lyme disease). Expanded vector ranges and the introduction of diseases not previously prevalent in the United States (e.g., dengue and chikungunya virus infection) will result in the increased use of pesticides, potentially placing workers at increased risk for exposure.

Industrial transitions and emerging industries
Climate change may impact various industries. Extreme weather events and damaged infrastructure and buildings may negatively impact the economy and employment, resulting in job insecurity and affecting health. Other industries that offer “greener” technologies may grow and be a source of new employment, although they may have occupational hazards as well. Emerging industries, increased production of nuclear energy, and recycling all have hazards that will need to be identified and controlled.

Changes in the built environment
High temperatures increase the need for climate-controlled buildings. Building-related illnesses (e.g., tight building syndrome or sick building syndrome), 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. Tight buildings may also lead to radon buildup in work areas such as smaller rooms, storage areas, or offices. Many industrial settings, such as paper mills, are not climate controlled and the higher temperatures resulting from climate change will increase heat exposure to these workers.

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