April 25, 2024

ILO: Climate Change "Already Having Serious Impacts" on Worker Safety and Health

A report released in April by the International Labor Organization (ILO) addresses the major occupational safety and health impacts of climate change. “Climate change is already having serious impacts on the safety and health of workers in all regions of the world,” according the report, which is titled “Ensuring Safety and Health at Work in a Changing Climate” (PDF). ILO estimates that more than 2.4 billion workers per year, representing 70 percent of the global workforce of 3.4 billion people, are exposed to excessive heat during their work. Other climate-change-related occupational risks include ultraviolet (UV) radiation, extreme weather events, workplace air pollution, vector-borne diseases, and agrochemicals. The report dedicates a chapter to each of these risks, with the aim of providing evidence for worker exposures and resulting safety and health effects. ILO also outlines existing response measures at the national and workplace levels.

“The time to act is now,” ILO states. Although reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains a global priority, “actions should also be taken to address the multifaceted challenge climate change poses for the workplace and [occupational safety and health],” the report adds.

Excessive heat, one of the most direct and widespread climate-change-related risks, particularly affects workers in agriculture, natural resource management, construction, refuse collection, emergency repair work, transport, tourism, and sports. Roughly 22.85 million occupational injuries, 18,970 work-related deaths, and 2.09 million disability-adjusted life years are attributable to excessive heat per year, ILO states. In many countries, basic occupational safety and health laws protect workers from extreme temperatures, but new, more comprehensive laws are being implemented specifically in response to extreme heat. For example, in October 2021, OSHA initiated the rulemaking process for a proposed standard that would protect workers in the United States from heat hazards.

ILO’s report estimates that 1.6 billion workers per year are exposed to solar UV radiation. People working outdoors, such as construction and agricultural workers, lifeguards, power utility workers, gardeners, postal workers, and dock workers are particularly at risk for sunburn, skin blistering, acute eye damage, weakened immune systems, pterygium, cataracts, and skin cancers. More than 18,960 work-related deaths are caused by non-melanoma skin cancer alone.

Risks from extreme weather events, air pollution, vector-borne diseases, and agrochemicals have also increased as the climate warms. Weather, climate, and water hazards caused about 2.06 million deaths—not only from occupational exposures—between 1970 and 2019. Outdoor workers are at greater risk for lung cancer, respiratory disease, and cardiovascular disease caused by air pollution, which is associated with about 860,000 work-related deaths every year. Vector-borne diseases such as malaria, Lyme disease, and dengue cause more than 15,170 work-related deaths per year and may become more prevalent due to longer transmission seasons and changing water storage, land use, and irrigation practices. Pesticide poisoning causes more than 300,000 additional deaths per year. And climate change may affect pesticide efficacy, crop characteristics, and pest occurrence, which may cause people to use stronger pesticides and apply them more frequently.

ILO also addresses the mental health effects of climate change toward the end of the report. It also notes that the shift to sustainable technologies “may create new [occupational safety and health] challenges, especially if appropriate OSH protections have not been implemented.”

ILO’s press release provides further information and a link to download a PDF of the report.