Over the coming years, the pace of climate change is expected to increase significantly, with extreme weather events, such as dangerously high temperatures, wild fires and flash flooding becoming more prevalent. This will directly affect the health of workers, with increases in heat-related diseases. How should OSH practitioners prepare for such events and assess the risks of such changes? James Pomeroy considers.
With frequent reports of record heatwaves, wild fires and floods, it is impossible to ignore the increasing pace and intensity of our changing climate. While the focus remains on cutting future emissions, given climate change is here and the impacts are set to accelerate, how should OHS programmes adapt and what practical measures could be taken to address the evolving occupational hazards?
An organisation’s sensitivity to climate change will be dependent on its activities and their location. In the northern industrialised countries, summers are likely to become hotter and drier, with winters becoming milder and wetter. There will be more frequent extreme weather, such as intense rainfall and prolonged heatwaves. These changes are projected to impact OHS in five inter-related ways:
Rising temperatures will result in more heat-related illnesses. Elevated temperatures are also known to reduce work productivity, while violent and aggressive behaviour can also increase, raising risks to frontline workers.
Increased industrial emissions combined with more frequent extreme weather events will increase ozone, particulate matter, pollen and allergens. Outdoor workers with pre-existing cardiovascular or respiratory diseases are most vulnerable to air quality reductions.
Extreme weather events
Extreme weather events will increase in frequency, duration and severity, bringing more risk of physical and psychological impacts for workers involved in public safety, critical infrastructure or responding to major incidents.
Vector-borne and zoonotic diseases will increase due to higher ambient temperatures, whilst other non-native species will potentially migrate north in response to warmer climates, particularly affecting those who work in the natural environment.
Climate change will result in more frequent, intense, and longer exposure to harmful levels of ultraviolent (UV) radiation. Outdoor workers could be exposed to increased eye damage, sunburn and cancers, and possibly immune suppression.
The impact of a changing climate on work
While climate change will affect all forms of work, some jobs – such as outdoor and public safety roles – will be more exposed. The higher use of contracting and self-employment amongst construction, agriculture, utility and delivery will make workers more vulnerable to climate change and greater use of productivity bonuses can create disincentives to OHS, such as the temptation to skip rest breaks to continue earning. Understanding and countering such antecedents will be important in an effective adaptation strategy.
There will also be risks for internal jobs involving heat-generating processes and poor ventilation and cooling systems, such as in catering, laundries, bakeries and furnaces. Work in restricted spaces such as train, crane and vehicle cabs are also vulnerable due to exposed and poorly ventilated working conditions.
Climate change may also increase the frequency and concentration of existing workplace exposures. Higher ambient temperatures, for example, are known to increase chemical absorption rates and cause contaminants to persist for longer.
Similarly, increased temperatures result in environmental pollutants becoming more volatile and transport further. Such changes will require risks to be re-assessed and controls reviewed. To assess what types of work will be impacted and how risks may emerge or change, various methodologies have been developed, including the BACLIAT and BRACE frameworks.
Policies and planning
Workplace policies may also require revision or development. With weather becoming more disruptive, contingency and flexible working policies, particularly during extreme weather events, will become more commonplace.
Work schedules, productivity goals and the frequency of rest breaks may also require review during heatwaves. Improved planning and coordination of outdoor work will also be important so that physically demanding work is conducted during the cooler periods or offsite.
Support workers to adapt and respond
Training will help workers adapt. This may include educating personnel on modifying their work, protecting themselves from heat-related conditions, knowing how to treat heatstroke and hypothermia, and monitoring for new forms of illnesses. Specialist training may also be necessary for individuals with medical conditions aggravated by environmental conditions. AT LR, the training we provide for heat prevention will need to strengthened and applied to additional personnel.
The health and psychological impacts
New exposures will require a review of occupational health programmes. More support will be required for those vulnerable to increased heat and poor air quality, particularly workers in thermally stressful occupations, older and pregnant workers or individuals with impaired thermoregulation. Like many organisations, LR’s Group standard of medicals will need to be reviewed to address these changes.
A changing climate could also increase levels of mental stress amongst the workforce. Outdoor occupations will experience increased disruption to their work, resulting in reduced capacity, productivity and earnings, all of which could increase mental stress. While the psychological impacts amongst emergency workers are well researched, the acute and chronic stress experienced by other frontline workers involved in the rescue and clean-up efforts is less well understood.
One of the more immediate improvements that can be made is the provision of lightweight PPE and workwear that provides good head to toe protection. The increase in ticks and UV levels highlight the importance of full skin coverage. Reviewing the type of PPE is one of the more immediate areas we will need to consider at LR.
The increasing pace and intensity of climate change will change OSH hazards. For many organisations, the changes will require significant revisions in their operating models and policies. They will also require more strategic considerations about the actions that prevent or reduce OSH risk. By identifying and assessing the risks now, and taking steps to adapt, it is possible to make better decisions and more cost-effective measures to manage the impacts.
James is group health, safety, environment and security director at Lloyd's Register