As COP27 seeks urgent answers, climate change increasingly threatens worker health, with the hottest seven years on record and current policies that could lead to a 2.4-3.5 degrees centigrade increase by 2100, according to The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: health at the mercy of fossil fuels (2022).
The Lancet reports that for exposure to extreme heat, outdoor workers, pregnant women and older people are among the at-risk groups, with the report warning us that 'of all natural disasters, heatwaves cause the most deaths'. It highlights that heat-related deaths in the over 65-year-old group have risen by 68% and that there is also increased risk of emerging diseases, co-epidemics and fire danger.
The report goes on to lament that responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have sadly, so far, failed to deliver the green recovery that many professionals advocated (see IOSH Revitalising 2.0 – build back better and healthier and fig.1 below), and that health and climate change are seldom search-terms people engage with at the same time.
More widely, on fossil fuels and air quality, the paper reports that they contributed to around 1.2 million deaths from ambient PM2.5 exposure in 2020. Meanwhile, it highlights that 2021 saw energy related greenhouse gas emissions rebound to an all-time high and atmospheric CO2 reach its highest level in more than two million years.
So we need urgent global action to prevent further environmental damage. This means prioritising the safe delivery of clean, green solutions and health-centred energy transition, creating a world of work that is good for workers and for society. And we also need adaptation and resilience strategies, so that frontline workers in agriculture, construction, healthcare, fire and rescue, transport and all other affected sectors, are better protected and can deliver key services for us all long-term.
Boosting human capital and OSH-capacity can help us prevent further environmental damage; alleviate existing harm; and adapt positively, so that we mitigate challenges and seize opportunities (see our COP26 article). For example, the OECD concludes that investment in healthcare systems can protect societies and stimulate economies, strengthening resilience to the ongoing pandemic and any future shocks (October 2022).
As OSH professionals, we can use the IOSH Blueprint to further enhance our CPD on environmental issues and horizon-scanning. And we can use our communication skills to highlight the linkage between OSH risk management and climate change, helping organisations and decision-makers usefully embrace the principles ISO 45001 and other relevant standards. This can also support SDG 3 (health and wellbeing), SDG 8 (decent work) and SDG 13 (climate change), as well as the proposed ISO / PAS on OH&S management and climate change issues.
For more on social sustainability, see IOSH’s Catch the Wave campaign and Beating the heat at work.
Richard Jones CFIOSH is a member of ISO TC 283 and BSI HS/1 (OSHMS), G/1/3 (modern slavery) and former IOSH head of policy.