EHS Management

A New Worry for Safety Managers—Climate Change

Sure, in a global sense, you’re worried about climate change—for your kids and future generations. But, now, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH), it’s a new worry for you professionally. Now you have to consider the effects of climate change for your workers, i.e., your current workers. Today we will review findings in the report that apply specifically to U.S. workers. Tomorrow we will consider what safety managers can do to help safeguard their workers from the heat-related effects of climate change.

In a new report recently issued by the Obama Administration, it states that “every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change.”  Seven consequences of climate change are examined, including well-known impacts, such as extreme heat and flooding, as well as lesser-publicized effects, such as problems with mental health resulting from extreme weather events.

So, how does this affect your job as a safety manager? Well, included in the report is a section on populations of concern, including outdoor workers and workers who may be exposed to other extreme weather environments.  Worker health issues are also included in other sections of the report as part of broader discussions regarding the public health impact of climate change.

Which occupations are most at risk?

According to the report, certain occupations have a greater risk of exposure to climate impacts. Climate change may increase the prevalence and severity of known occupational hazards and exposures, as well as the emergence of new ones. Outdoor workers are often among the first to be exposed to the effects of climate change.

Climate change is expected to affect the health of outdoor workers through increases in outdoor temperature, degraded air quality, extreme weather, vector-borne diseases, industrial exposures, and changes in the built environment. Workers affected by climate change include farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers; commercial fishermen; construction workers; paramedics, firefighters and other first responders; and transportation workers.

Also, laborers exposed to hot indoor work environments (such as steel mills, dry cleaners, manufacturing facilities, warehouses, and other areas that lack air conditioning) are at risk for extreme heat exposure. For some groups, such as migrant workers and day laborers, the health effects of climate change can be cumulative.

Workers may also be exposed to adverse occupational and climate-related conditions that the general public may altogether avoid, such as direct exposure to wildfires.

Where you work is a factor

In addition, where you work is also a factor  putting you at greater risk for the adverse effects of climate change. According to the report, locations with greater health threats include urban areas (because, for example, the “heat island” effect or air quality concerns), areas where airborne allergens and other air pollutants occur at levels that aggravate respiratory illnesses, communities experiencing depleted water supplies or vulnerable energy and transportation infrastructure, coastal and other flood-prone areas, and locations affected by drought and wildfire.

Workers preparing for or responding to flooding, wildfires, or other weather-related emergencies may be hampered by disruption to transportation, utilities, medical, or communication infrastructure.

Also, what if you work in an older building? People who work in older buildings may be exposed to increased indoor air pollutants and mold, stagnant airflow, or high indoor temperatures.

Effects on workers from extreme heat

So, it’s a little hotter out. What can happen to your workers?

  • Heat-related illnesses. Pointed out in the report is that higher temperatures or longer, more frequent periods of heat may result in more cases of heat-related illnesses (for example, heatstroke and heat exhaustion) and fatigue among workers. This is especially true for more physically demanding occupations.
  • Effects of heat stress. Heat stress and fatigue can also result in reduced vigilance, safety lapses, reduced work capacity, and increased risk of injury.
  • Air pollution. Higher temperatures can increase levels of air pollution, including ground-level ozone, resulting in increased worker exposure and subsequent risk of respiratory illness.

What about other weather events?

According to the report, some extreme weather events and natural disasters, such as floods, storms, droughts, and wildfires, are becoming more frequent and intense. An increased need for complex emergency responses will expose rescue and recovery workers to physical and psychological hazards. Wildfire firefighters are at particular risk with the increase in number and duration of wildfires, especially in the West.

In addition, the safety of other workers and their ability to recognize and avoid workplace hazards may be impaired by damage to infrastructure and disrupted communication.

What about other threats for outdoor workers?

The threats from climate change for outdoor workers does not stop with weather events. According to the report, other climate-related health threats for outdoor workers include:

  • Increased waterborne and foodborne pathogens,
  • Increased duration of allergy problems with longer pollen seasons, and
  • Expanded habitat ranges of disease-carrying vectors that may influence the risk of exposure to diseases such as West Nile virus or Lyme disease.

So, that’s a snapshot of some of the purported nasty effects of climate change on U.S. workers. Check tomorrow’s Advisor for some tips and actions for safety managers to mitigate heat-related effects at their worksites.