March 14, 2017 / Julie Potyraj

Climate Change and Occupational Health

The “butterfly effect” suggests that one small action, like the movement of a butterfly’s wings, can ripple into significant and unforeseen consequences. While the concept was initially related to weather prediction, applying it to climate change seems more appropriate. MPH@GW, the online MPH program for George Washington University, details how small changes in climate have already started to trigger outcomes in an area that many people may not have considered: occupational health.

We know climate change will impact our natural environment. But we are still learning just how it might impact our indoor and outdoor workplace environments. The infographic below highlights six areas of impact climate change will have on occupational health. For industrial hygienists devoted to workplace wellness, these factors are harbingers of significant challenges they will need to address.

Click the infographic to open a larger version in a new window.

Perhaps the most concerning workplace hazard stemming from climate change is an increase in heat. Warmer temperatures pose health risks for workers like firefighters, factory employees, and construction workers who may be more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. But warmer temperatures can also lead to other workplace hazards.

For example, the CDC anticipates that warmer temperatures will lead to several biological hazards such as food- and water-borne diseases, vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease, dengue and the Zika virus, and mold-related asthma and other lung illnesses. Warmer temperatures are also associated with increased use of pesticides and herbicides. But this effort to manage the consequences of climate change will further expose workers, especially those in agriculture, to additional chemical hazards. Air quality and ozone risks will also increase with rising temperatures, and both can lead to significant respiratory issues like allergies, asthma, or lung diseases.

The climate change-related challenges extend beyond outdoor work environments. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors. This is significant to industrial hygienists for two reasons: first, as climate change intensifies, people will spend more time indoors for safety and refuge from extreme weather. Next, as people spend more time indoors, our infrastructures will require more energy-efficient capabilities — both to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, and to protect building occupants from adverse conditions.

Where do industrial hygienists begin?

According to “An Overview of Occupational Risks From Climate Change,” published by several faculty members from the Master of Public Health program at The George Washington University, occupational health research needs to account for climate projections. Research should consider the needs of different job sectors as well as different geographic regions. In the meantime, several strategies can help protect the health of workers:

  • Implementation of surveillance programs to track changes in occupational exposures, injury, and illness that may be related to changes in climate.
  • Training for workers to identify potentially harmful climate-related exposures.
  • Limitation of harmful occupational exposures to workers by increasing the number and length of breaks, and incentivizing workers to take those breaks.
  • Alternatives for heat-inducing protective gear.
  • Investment in sensor-based wearable technology that can warn workers about exposure levels.

Start with the proverbial butterfly whose wings set these environmental consequences into motion. Studying and understanding the environmental impact of climate change allows us to better anticipate, recognize, evaluate, prevent, and control how those factors impact workers and the workplace. Solutions to address the hazards discussed above may have unintended consequences, and new environmental hazards may surface. These considerations will continue to gain relevance as climate change intensifies.

Julie Potyraj

Julie Potyraj is the community manager for MPH@GW, as well as an MPH candidate at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University.


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