We explore the OSH role in managing growing pressure on first responders from climate change-related extreme weather events and disasters.
The impact of the changing climate became devastatingly clear last year. In the UK, 2022 was the warmest year on record (Met Office, 2022). In Pakistan, record-breaking monsoon rainfall culminated in flash floods and landslides, killing at least 1265 and affecting 33 million people (Reliefweb, 2022). In Portugal, France and Italy, intense heat, dry conditions and strong winds generated the optimum conditions for wildfires, which also raged across Australia and America.
While not all extreme weather events and disasters can be directly attributed to climate change, they are becoming more frequent, deadly and destructive under its influence (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2022). A recent study suggested the summer heatwave in India – where temperatures reached 50°C – had been made 30 times more likely by the climate crisis (World Weather Attribution, 2022).
Climate change-linked extreme weather and disasters are exacerbating the risks for emergency responders, who have been identified as a population of concern exposed to climate-related risk (Pedersen et al, 2021).
Preparedness planning also needs to consider the aftermath of extreme events
The increase in wildfires (UN Environment Programme, 2022), for example, creates more risks for firefighters, such as being exposed to more smoke or becoming trapped. ‘There’s a particular focus at the moment on the carcinogenic effect of fire contaminants – any product that breaks down chemically under combustion – and these by-products are deposited on PPE and firefighters’ skin,’ says Dave Walton, deputy chief fire officer at the Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. This is leading services to change regimes around the wearing and storing of PPE and post-incident procedures.
‘Every firefighter is trained in the wearing of self-contained breathing apparatus,’ explains Dave. ‘While this is usually worn when firefighting internal compartment fires, it is increasingly being worn in outdoor incidents.’
Meanwhile, attending devastating events and the clean-up activities that follow, such as recovering bodies, can culminate in traumatic injuries and psychological stress. Dave is particularly worried about the ‘cumulative effect of numerous smaller incidents rather than the one high-impact, high-trauma event’.
This concern is shared by Dr Barry Levy, co-editor of Climate Change and Public Health and adjunct professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine in the US, who notes that first responders may be witnessing different and greater tragedies than they have seen before. For that reason, ‘preparedness planning also needs to consider the aftermath of extreme events – when victims and emergency responders may be suffering from psychosocial problems’.
The heightened level of OSH risk speaks to a wider problem for the emergency services. ‘Whether from [the risks posed by] climate change or other independent, compounding factors, the fire service is having trouble attracting qualified applicants and retaining skilled firefighters,’ says Ryan Heffernan of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a union representing paid full-time firefighters and emergency medical services personnel in the US and Canada.
Recruitment challenges were also identified as some of the most significant issues for the sector at the 2022 US Fire Administrator’s Summit. ‘As long as this challenge remains, understaffing will increase the risks to firefighters and victims due to the suboptimal numbers of human resources to protect life and property,’ says Ryan.
‘Disaster response is labour- and emotion-intensive: therefore, there is an increased risk of injury, both physical and behavioural,’ he continues. ‘These factors negatively affect the existing workforce and, if not addressed, could lead to people electing for a career change.’
Changing OSH priorities
The role of OSH professionals in keeping first responders safe is gaining importance in light of the climate crisis. ‘The important part for OSH professionals is understanding the environments in which they either work themselves or their organisations cover – they could cover multiple sites,’ says Mark Parsons, chair of the IOSH Health and Social Care Group and assistant director of health and safety at Swansea Bay University Health Board.
‘If industries are mainly outside, it might cover looking at what clothing they have on – whether there’s a kind of PPE they should be looking at, or any assistance they may require,’ he adds.
Working through action cards – which clearly detail the responses needed in critical situations to mimic a disaster – will strengthen an organisation’s capacity to respond, Mark suggests. It’s also important to ensure staff are kept safe, informed and prepared for severe weather events. ‘Having robust up-to-date risk assessments and business continuity plans that are communicated regularly – as well as disaster drills based on scenarios – are important,’ he adds.
Actively engaging with the issues presented by the climate crisis – and equipping first responders with the skills to respond to them – is key for OSH professionals. It’s important to ‘undertake SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats] analyses to understand their knowledge and skills – it’s not a blanket “you need to do X”,’ says Mark. Finding these gaps enables professionals to identify the training required.
According to Pedersen (2021), communication skills – which are covered by the IOSH competency framework – are a crucial means of conveying the evolving risks to industries and workers, as well as engaging with representatives for stronger OSH protections.
Developing knowledge around hazard and target populations, surveillance of occupational hazards and development of new adaptation strategies have been identified as three prime focuses (Adam-Poupart et al, 2013).
As extreme weather events and disasters become increasingly common, more professions could be forced to take on the role of first responder.
Following climate disasters, teachers need to attend to students’ needs as well as convey information. This can affect the mental health of the teacher and place them in unsafe conditions. Following Hurricane Katrina, research indicates around a quarter of teachers struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (24%) and depression (25%) (Costa et al, 2015).
Care workers and nurses
The second Lancet Countdown report (Watts et al, 2018) found that risks created by climate change could add to the threat of a ‘systemic failure’ of the world’s hospitals. In climate-driven disasters, older people are most at risk (National Council on Aging, 2022). In-home care workers in California are being trained for disasters (Center for Caregiver Advancement, 2022).
Facing the future
Do we need new paradigms or models for addressing the increasing pressures the climate crisis is creating for first responders? Not necessarily, says Barry. ‘We can reasonably anticipate the nature of most of these infrequent events, but we often do not know when they are going to occur or how frequently.’ Mark agrees, adding that there are ‘plenty of policies and guidance already in place – the UK Health and Safety at Work Act and the aim to transition to zero carbon by 2050 are some examples (UN, 2022). The important part is embedding and adhering to what’s already out there.’
‘What we’ve got at the moment is not fundamentally broken,’ says Dave, ‘but it needs adapting to reflect the changing nature and frequency of the risk,’ including building active partnerships with local authorities. Barry also highlights the need for multi-agency working. ‘Preparedness planning needs to involve multiple sectors of society, not just medical care, public health and public safety.’
‘All systems need to have surge capacity,’ he continues. ‘They must respond not only to day-to-day occurrences, but also to extreme weather events, heatwaves and other occurrences that require additional competent people, appropriate equipment and advance preparedness planning.’
The climate crisis is exposing emergency responders to heightened short- and long-term health risks, including psychological stress. However, OSH professionals can use preparedness planning, communication and surveillance to develop a proactive approach to tackling the challenges of a changing climate.
To see references for this article, visit ioshmagazine.com/climate-emergency