August 3, 2023

ILO Report Examines Effects of Chemicals on Climate Change and Worker Health

A new report from the International Labor Organization explores the links between occupational chemical use, climate change, and worker health and safety. Based on recent research, the report shows how chemicals both contribute to and worsen the effects of climate change, resulting in increased risk of hazardous occupational exposures.

Rising temperatures lead to increased risk of heat stress for outdoor workers, and research suggests heat stress may change the way the body processes chemicals, according to the report. Certain chemicals may affect the body’s mechanisms for regulating temperature such as skin blood flow, heart rate, respiration, and sweating, and heat stress may worsen the toxic effects of chemicals. One possible consequence of combined exposures to chemicals and heat stress is chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology, or CKDu, which affects many agricultural workers in hot, rural regions of North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and India. Agrochemicals and heavy metals are among the dozens of potential causes of CDKu.

Chemicals also contribute to ozone depletion, which increases exposures to ultraviolet light among outdoor workers. The production, transport, and use of pesticides contributes to climate change through the burning of fossil fuels, the emission of greenhouse gases, and weakening of soil’s ability to absorb carbon. Agricultural workers have greater exposures to pesticides from more frequent application due to the changing migration patterns of pests and greater likelihood of vector-borne diseases, both of which are results of climate change.

Rising temperatures can cause certain chemicals and munitions to become volatile, increasing the risk of fires and explosions. Other consequences of climate change such as floods and hurricanes can damage the facilities where chemicals are stored. The report refers to flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2018, which knocked out power to a facility in Crosby, Texas, that handled organic peroxides. Due to loss of refrigeration from the power failure, the chemicals on site decomposed, leading to fires and the spread of toxic fumes into the neighboring community.

The report lists several ILO standards and other resources for managing the effects of climate change to protect workers. Policy recommendations include developing occupational exposure limits for proxy measures of climate change such as maximum temperatures to which workers may be exposed. The report also recommends incorporating gender into occupational safety and health practice since research suggests that women may have greater risk of heat stress and pregnant women are more susceptible to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration.

The report is available as a PDF from the ILO website.

Related: For more information on CKDu, read “Kidney Disease Among Agricultural Workers.” The article “Ill Wind: Climate Change and Industrial Hygiene” offers an introduction to the issue for OEHS professionals. “Heat Hazards: Protecting Workers in Hot Environments” offers insight on the NIOSH criteria document for occupational exposure to heat.