Workers in extreme heat

22 Apr 2024

Climate Change and Occupational Health

Whether you believe climate change is attributed to human activity or not, climate models indicate that the strongest effects are at our doorstep. You have only to search the news over the last year especially to see the increasing change in weather patterns and climates in order to understand the disruption it is having across the world. More locally to us in the UK, our winters are warming up and our seasons shifting. 

Some of the most detrimental effects are the extreme weather events that are taking place regularly, such as catastrophic flooding, hurricanes and tornados, severe droughts and intense heatwaves. 

Though you may typically think of the immediate, direct effects of these events such as people losing their homes or material possessions. But have you considered the long-term, indirect effects climate change could bring to global health and in particular, health in the workplace?

Here are some things to consider:

  • The summer of 2022 was the hottest season on record. There were an estimated 2,985 deaths associated with heat episodes in the UK. Most of those who died were aged 65 and over. As heat episodes in the UK become more intense, an increased burden on health services may further limit resources for us all, including those already suffering occupational illnesses.
  • Increased ambient temperatures during indoor and outdoor work in hot environments are likely to result in more incidents of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat syncope, heat cramps and heat rash. Workers in construction, agriculture and landscaping may see reduced productivity and an increased risk of accidents due to heat-induced fatigue, sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses and dizziness. 
  • Body temperature extremes, resulting from heat stress at work, can also worsen chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cerebrovascular disease and diabetes-related conditions.
  • For those working with substances hazardous to health, increased respiration during hot conditions can exacerbate inhalation of airborne hazards, and warm, wet skin can promote the absorption of chemicals. Workers may also abandon respiratory protection or skin coverings due to heat related discomfort, further increasing exposures. 
  • Stratospheric ozone depletion leads to increased UV radiation exposure for outdoor workers increasing the likelihood of skin cancer, eye damage and sunburn. 
  • Global warming can increase air pollutants. These can either be directly emitted or formed in the atmosphere from gas-phase precursors. These can in turn lead to further warming. Increased ground-level ozone exposure can trigger respiratory issues such as asthma. Aerosols containing sulphates, organic and elemental carbon, and fine particulate matter are also escalated by climate change and exposure can be associated with lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiovascular disease, and asthma. Increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide promotes plant growth and release airborne allergens.
  • Most of the air people breathe over their lifetime, at work or home, will be indoors. Compromised indoor air quality (because of pollutants and allergens infiltrating buildings) may result in illness, fatigue and lowered productivity. Increased reliance on air-conditioning (AC) in buildings increases exposure to dehumidified air, which can aggravate asthma. Poorly maintained AC equipment provides a greater risk of AC-borne transmissible diseases, such as Legionnaires disease. 
  • Changing environmental conditions enable the spread of diseases and infections between animals and humans (known as ‘Zoonoses’). For instance, warmer winters in Scotland have resulted in increased incidences of Lyme disease in humans due to the growth of infected tick populations and climate-modified tick behaviours. 
  • Global warming has also been linked to the migration of ‘vector’ species, such as the Asian tiger mosquito. Originally from Southeast Asia, these insects can carry harmful zoonotic diseases, such as dengue fever, yellow fever or the Zika virus. This species is now thriving in Europe and is expected to establish in the UK the coming decades. Worldwide incidence of dengue fever linked to this migration has risen 30-fold in the last 50 years. 
  • The psychological impact of climate change on workers is an emerging concern. Climate-dependent sectors, such as agriculture, have seen failed harvests as a result of wetter winters and flooding. Trauma and stress associated with such job and financial insecurity is known to cause mental health issues, reduced work performance and, in some instances, increased suicide rates.

By no means is the above list exhaustive, but it sadly shines a light on the range of potentially deleterious effects occupational health professionals will need to consider when protecting worker health in a warmer era. 

Climate change is certainly not simply a political issue, nor is it anymore just an environmental issue; it is a pressing occupational hazard that requires immediate and sustained action. As the planet warms, the consequences for worker safety and health become increasingly complex and demanding and will need careful and serious consideration by employers across the globe.