Scientists Look to Protect Workers From Climate Change
“Climate change may result in not only the increasing prevalence and severity of known occupational hazards and exposures, but also the emergence of new ones,” states a blog post. “Workers are often the first to be exposed to the effects of climate change and may be affected for longer durations and at greater intensities. Recently, workers were referred to as ‘the canaries in the coal mine of climate change impacts.”’
But the article on the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s website also notes that while there has been much research and planning on public health from the environmental aspects of climate change, little has been done on the effects on workers.
Those particularly at risk include outdoor workers, emergency responders, commercial fishermen, health care workers, farmers, certain indoor workers, and transportation and utility workers. “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,” according to the post.
The potential effects of climate change on workers include:
Direct effects such as increased ambient temperatures, air pollution, ultraviolet radiation, extreme weather, vector-borne diseases, and expanded vector ranges.
Indirect effects, such as hazards from new and emerging industries such as renewable energy, carbon sequestration, and “green industries,” and changes in how structures and communities are built and maintained.
“There is strong evidence that climate change is and will continue presenting risks of job-related injury, illness, and death …” — National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
“Climate change can contribute to decreasing the ozone layer and affect UV radiation levels at the surface of the earth. Outdoor workers will have more frequent, intense, and longer exposure to UV radiation, resulting in increased risk of adverse eye effects, skin cancer, and possibly immune dysfunction,” the article states. “Extreme weather events or natural disasters, such as floods, landslides, storms, lightning, droughts, and wildfires, are becoming more frequent and intense. Weather disasters may cause deaths, injuries, diseases, and mental stress.”
The post notes that an executive order signed by President Obama last year made a commitment to prepare the nation for the potential impacts of climate change. “The challenge is to characterize how these climate events may influence worker health and safety and to establish plans for mitigating, responding, and adapting to the current and anticipated impacts.”
NIOSH has created a team of scientists to investigate the implications of climate change for worker health and safety and to develop an action plan. Called the NIOSH Climate Change Occupational Safety and Health Work Group, the team is charged with determining relevant issues, identifying gaps in worker protection, and making recommendations for worker safety and health improvements.
“There is strong evidence that climate change is and will continue presenting risks of job-related injury, illness, and death, so numerous critical research questions need to be resolved regarding specific hazards, sentinel events, risk assessment, and preventive actions,” the post says. “Additional research needs include susceptible populations, surveillance, and indicators relevant to climate change and workers. A strategic research plan will provide the roadmap for a broad approach to meeting these needs. As a result, the health consequences of climate change and how to lessen them will be widely understood.”