Scientific Reports

Climate change and workers’ health, which categories are most at risk?

Extreme climatic conditions and disease growth

Workers’ health is increasingly at risk. Accidents at work, which continue to occur with dramatic frequency, are not enough; climate change is another element that endangers the health of 70% of workers worldwide.

According to the global report Ensuring Safety and health at work in a Changing Climate by the International Labour Organization – ILO, the number of workers at risk to health due to climate change is very high, despite existing safeguards for occupational safety and health.

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The alarms for health

2023 has reached a record warm and global warming is changing the relationship with health. Exposure to extreme climatic conditions (excessive heat, solar radiation, air pollution, pesticides) shows an alarming growth of some pathologies such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, kidney dysfunctions, mental health problems.

Therefore, according to the ILO report, the health of 2.4 billion workers (compared to a total workforce of 3.4 billion) is to be considered at risk. A situation that in the last twenty years has worsened considerably (+35% of pathologies).

The World Economic Forum’s Quantifying the impact of climate change on human health report estimates that by 2050 there could be 14.5 million more deaths worldwide as a result of climate change. Workers, especially if they work outdoors, are the most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, because they are exposed to longer periods and higher intensities than the rest of the population.

26.2 million workers suffer from chronic kidney disease as a result of exposure to excessive temperatures; temperatures that every year kill about 19 thousand workers, while 22.87 million report injuries in the workplace due to excess heat.

In fact, the causes of climate change that attack the health of workers are varied and combine in a deadly mixture.

Mitigating the climate and ensuring workers’ health

Ensuring safety and health at work in a changing climate has compiled a list of health hazards for climate workers:

  • 1.6 billion workers exposed to UV radiation, with more than 18,960 work-related deaths each year from non-melanoma skin cancer;
  • 1.6 billion people could be exposed to air pollution at work, resulting in up to 860,000 outdoor deaths each year;
  • over 870 million agricultural workers, probably exposed to pesticides, with over 300,000 deaths attributed to pesticide poisoning each year;
  • 15,000 deaths each year caused by pest-borne diseases in the workplace.

Some sectors will suffer more than others the effects of climate change, but also those of the green transition: it is crucial to provide support to address it, because the costs of repairing the damage are greater than those of avoiding them. In this multifaceted challenge, workers’ health must be at the top of the climate agenda.

Climate change and environmental degradation can lead to a deterioration in working conditions and an increased risk of accidents, diseases and death at work.

The most vulnerable workers are the poorest. Addressing climate issues by integrating them with health and work issues means promoting more general social justice.

The categories most at risk

Health risks are not the same for everyone. In general, pregnant women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities are more vulnerable to health stressors such as extreme heat and air pollution. The sectors most affected are jobs that take place outdoors and are physically demanding, such as agriculture, construction and transport.

As many health risks run those who work in warm indoor environments or poorly ventilated enclosed spaces; some workplaces can become dangerous in a short time, for example those that already generate heat such as bakeries, foundries and laundries.

Employers will also have to contend with the costs associated with occupational accidents and diseases. To quantify the scale of the problem more clearly, if global warming remains within 1.5 years, it is expected that the accumulated financial loss due to heat-related diseases alone will reach 2.4 trillion dollars by 2030. Global warming is expected to continue.

The health costs of climate change

In the US, the health costs of air pollution and climate change are already far more than USD 800 billion per year, a number that is set to increase. In addition, climate migration will increase with global warming. For example, if the global temperature increases by 2 degrees by the end of the century, asylum applications in EU countries will double.

Climate change is also a health emergency: global warming threatens to destabilize both health systems and the planet. Reducing emissions is a matter of survival that requires the cooperation of governments, businesses and citizens and needs substantial resources.

Damage to workers’ health undermines the economic and social system

At COP 28, more than 120 nations signed a Declaration on Climate and Health in which they pledged to take effective action against climate change and allocated more than $1 billion to health-related projects. But much more needs to be done.

The ILO study outlines a very bleak, albeit realistic, scenario. It tells us where we are going to crash if we keep going on as if nothing happened, it sounds like a documented and severe warning. Damage to workers’ health causes damage to the whole economic and social system.

Yet, to read it with other lenses, the study also gives us a margin of hope: it highlights the errors and suggests the path to be taken not to be overwhelmed. It is therefore up to us to adopt new strategies and responsible behavior.

We emphasize the we: no one, at any level, can call himself out, everyone must do his part. Let us not make the mistake of thinking the effects of climate change affect others: Earth is one, we do not have a Planet B. Governments, institutions, associations, citizens must work towards a common goal to deliver a livable Planet to those who will live after us.

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