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Climate Change and Occupational Safety and Health

Posted on by Max Kiefer, MS, CIH; Jennifer Lincoln, PhD; Paul Schulte, PhD; Brenda Jacklitsch, MS


cc4Weather and climate patterns are changing, causing increasingly frequent and severe heat waves, drought, flooding, and extreme weather events, as well as a rise in sea levels, a report released in May by the U.S. Global Change Research Program concluded (National Climate Assessment). Global climate change has become one of the most visible environmental concerns of the 21st century and these changes have the potential to affect human health both directly and indirectly.

Today, the United Nations is hosting Climate Summit 2014 to bring together world leaders at the highest level to address climate change and galvanize support for climate action.

When President Obama signed Executive Order 13653 in November 2013, he committed “to prepare the nation for the impacts of climate change by undertaking actions to enhance climate preparedness and resilience.” The challenge is to characterize how these climate events may influence worker health and safety and to establish plans for mitigating, responding, and adapting to the current and anticipated impacts.

To this end, as occupational safety and health professionals, we must ask two key questions:

  • How should we respond to these potential hazards?
  • What information and tools do we need to protect workers and ensure they can adapt to current and anticipated health and safety impacts?

How climate change affects workers

There has been considerable research and planning with regard to the public health and environmental aspects of climate change, but little on its effects on workers. Workers are often the first to be exposed to the effects of climate change and may be affected for longer durations and at greater intensities. Recently, workers were referred to as “the canaries in the coal mine of climate change impacts” [Roelofs and Wegman 2014]. Climate change may result in not only the increasing prevalence and severity of known occupational hazards and exposures, but also the emergence of new ones.

A number of worker populations may be particularly vulnerable to threats from climate change, such as outdoor workers, emergency responders, commercial fishermen, health care workers, fire fighters, farmers, certain indoor workers, and transportation and utility workers. Workers may also be exposed to conditions that the general public can avoid, and work force increases are likely in jobs that are most affected by climate change such as wildland firefighting, as well as in industries that will emerge in response to it, including renewable energy. For worker populations such as migrant workers and day laborers who may have inadequate housing or other social and economic constraints, the health effects of climate change may be additive from exposures both at work and at home.

The impact of climate change on workers can include numerous hazards:

  • Direct effects, such as increased ambient temperatures, air pollution, ultraviolet (UV) radiation, extreme weather, vector-borne diseases, and expanded vector ranges (discussed in more detail below).
  • Indirect effects, such as hazards from new and emerging industries such as renewable energy, carbon sequestration, and “green industries”, and changes in how structures and communities are built and maintained [Sumner 2009; Fogarty and McCally 2010].

Climate Change and Worker Hazards

Climate change can contribute to decreasing the ozone layer and affect UV radiation levels at the surface of the earth. Outdoor workers will have more frequent, intense, and longer exposure to UV radiation, resulting in increased risk of adverse eye effects, skin cancer, and possibly immune dysfunction. Extreme weather events or natural disasters, such as floods, landslides, storms, lightning, droughts, and wildfires, are becoming more frequent and intense. Weather disasters may cause deaths, injuries, diseases, and mental stress (Thacker 2008). As extreme weather events increase in frequency and severity, there will be an increased need for emergency response workers involved in rescue and cleanup [Keim 2008]. Extreme weather events may also cause damage to infrastructure (power grids, roads, and transportation) and buildings. These events can lead to increased risk of traumatic injury, and disruptions in radio contact and other means of rapid communication. This could result in the delay of information needed to recognize and manage an occupational hazard – or could result in such information not being received at all. Some response workers may be at increased risk of violence when dealing with a public already stressed from shortages of food, water, sanitation, power, and medical assistance. The impact of more frequent and intense weather events on responder’s mental health and stress is another consideration [Noyes et al. 2009].

cc3aThe frequency and severity of wildfires are projected to increase from increased drought, spreads in insect damage, and longer fire seasons (Weinhold 2011), resulting in higher levels of particulate matter and other air pollutants [QFR Integration Panel 2009]. This will require an increasing number of fire fighters and volunteers to respond. Between 2001 and 2012, over 200 wildland fire fighters died in the line of duty. Common hazards faced on the fire line can include burnovers or entrapments, heat-related injuries and rhabdomyolysis (serious physical illness from the breakdown of muscle tissue), smoke inhalation, vehicle-related (including aircraft) injuries, slips, trips, and falls.

Higher temperatures or longer, more frequent periods of heat may result in greater heat stress, potentially leading to more cases of heat-related illnesses (heat stroke, heat exhaustion, etc.), increased susceptibility to chemical exposure, and fatigue [Kjellstrom et al. 2009; Nillson 2010; Gubernot et al. 2013]. Exposure to increased temperature can also result in reduced vigilance and increased risk of injury or lapses in safety. Elevated temperatures can increase levels of air pollution, including ground-level ozone. Outdoor workers, have longer exposure to such air pollutants, which are linked to chronic health effects, such as respiratory diseases and allergic disorders.

The prevalence and distribution of water-borne and food-borne pathogens could increase, affecting outdoor, emergency response, and health care workers. Pollen, associated with allergic reactions, also may increase with earlier flowering and longer pollen seasons [Bartra et al. 2007]. More hurricanes and more floods could lead to increases of mold in buildings and the exposure of more workers in the remediation and construction industries.

Increasing temperatures and levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) may increase the growth and spread of poison ivy and other poisonous plants [Ziska et al. 2007]. Changes in temperatures affect tick and mosquito populations by increasing their numbers, extending their transmission seasons, and expanding their distribution seasonally and geographically. This means that outdoor workers will be at increased risk for mosquito-borne diseases (e.g., West Nile virus) and tick-borne diseases (e.g., Lyme disease). Increased temperatures will also bring the introduction of diseases common in the tropics but not previously prevalent in the United States such as dengue and chikungunya virus [Estrada-Peña 2002]. The resultant increased use of pesticides poses risks of overexposure for workers who apply them and work in areas where they have been applied.

The Arctic is changing and those changes will increase the number and diversity of workers in the Arctic [NOAA 2014]. One dramatic change is the loss of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean and its peripheral seas. Oil and gas exploration, mining, shipping, commercial fishing, tourism, and associated support services will continue to increase in the Arctic. Occupational risks associated with this increase in activity need to be researched and evaluated.

Other factors that may affect the impact of climate change on workers include population growth, energy policies, increasing urbanization, drought, and deforestation. It is likely that the variety of occupations and number of workers that may be affected will increase.

Research Needs

Through research, we can increase our knowledge of climate change and worker health and safety, and improve our options for an effective national response. This research will allow us to anticipate the impact on workers and implement effective prevention strategies. Schulte and Chun [2009] have developed a framework (Figure 1) for considering the relationship between climate change and occupational safety and health.

This framework outlines the multidisciplinary research necessary to quantify and forecast workers at risk by hazard, occupation, and geographic location.


NIOSH Activities

NIOSH has formed an internal interdisciplinary team of scientists to investigate the implications of climate change for worker health and safety, and develop an action plan to ensure NIOSH is proactively addressing this topic. The NIOSH Climate Change Occupational Safety and Health (CCOSH) Work Group is charged with determining relevant issues, identifying gaps in worker protection, and making recommendations for worker safety and health improvements. CCOSH Work Group activities are anticipated to include the following:

  • Developing a strategic research agenda to address identified gaps and emerging issues
  • Identifying, developing, and disseminating communication products
  • Participating on federal, state, and other initiatives, as appropriate, to ensure that OSH is included as a core component of public health
  • Funding of projects related to climate change and worker safety and health

There is strong evidence that climate change is and will continue presenting risks of job-related injury, illness, and death, so numerous critical research questions need to be resolved regarding specific hazards, sentinel events, risk assessment, and preventive actions. Additional research needs include susceptible populations, surveillance, and indicators relevant to climate change and workers. A strategic research plan will provide the roadmap for a broad approach to meeting these needs. As a result, the health consequences of climate change and how to lessen them will be widely understood.

Please share your thoughts about worker safety and health and climate change via the blog comment box below. For more information visit the NIOSH Climate Change and Occupational Safety and Health topic page.

Max Kiefer, MS, CIH; Jennifer Lincoln, PhD; Paul Schulte, PhD; Brenda Jacklitsch, MS

Max Kiefer is with the NIOSH Western States Office in Denver, CO.

Jennifer Lincoln is with the NIOSH Alaska Pacific Office in Anchorage, AK.

Paul Schulte and Brenda Jacklitsch are with the NIOSH Education and Information Division in Cincinnati, OH.

The authors would like to acknowledge Seleen Collins (NIOSH EID) for providing writer-editor review of this blog.




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Estrada-Peña A [2002]. Increasing habitat suitability in the United States for the tick that transmits Lyme disease: a remote sensing approach. Environ Health Perspect 110(7):635–640.

Fogarty J, McCally M [2010]. Health and safety risks of carbon capture and storage. JAMA 303(1):67–68.

Gubernot DM, Anderson GB, Hunting KL [2013]. The epidemiology of occupational heat exposure in the United States: a review of the literature and assessment of research needs in a changing climate. Int J Biometeorol, December 11, 1–10.

Keim M [2008]. Building human resilience: the role of public health preparedness and response as an adaptation to climate change. Am J Prev Med 35(5):508–516.

Kjellstrom T, Kovats RS, Lloyd SJ, Holt T, Tol RS [2009]. The direct impact of climate change on regional labor productivity. Arch Environ Occup Health 64(4):217–227.

Nillson M, Kjellstrom T [2010]. Climate change impacts on working people: how to develop intervention policies. Glob Health Action 3:1–6.

NOAA (2014). NOAA’s Arctic Action Plan – Supporting the National Strategy for the Arctic Region. U.S. Dep. Commer., Natl. Oceanic Atmos. Admin., Silver Spring, Md. Date accessed: September, 2014

Noyes PD, McElwee MK,Miller HD,Clark BW,Van Tiem LA,Walcott KC, Erwin KN,Levin ED [2009]. The toxicology of climate change: environmental contaminants in a warming world. Environ Intl 35(6):971–986.

QFR Integration Panel [2009]. Quadrennial Fire Review. Washington, DC: US Department of the Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Roelofs C, Wegman D [2014]. Workers: the climate canaries. Am J Public Health, August 14, 2014:e1–e8, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302145.

Schulte PA, Chun H [2009]. Climate change and occupational safety and health: establishing a preliminary framework. J Occup Environ Hyg 6(9):542–554.

Sumner SL, Layde PM [2009]. Expansion of renewable energy industries and implications for occupational safety and health. JAMA 302(7):787–789.

Thacker MLR, Sabogal RI, Henderson A [2008]. Overview of deaths associated with natural events, United States, 1979–2004. Overseas Development Institute.

Weinhold B [2011]. Fields and forests in flames: vegetation smoke and human health. Environ Health Perspect 119(9):A386–A393.

Ziska LH, Sicher RC, George K, Mohan JE [2007]. Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and potential impacts on the growth and toxicity of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Weed Sci 55(4):288–292.

Posted on by Max Kiefer, MS, CIH; Jennifer Lincoln, PhD; Paul Schulte, PhD; Brenda Jacklitsch, MS

17 comments on “Climate Change and Occupational Safety and Health”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    This is all based on computer models. Climate change is a political issue and it is not based on facts. So far all predictions have been wrong for the last 20 years. CO2 is more prevelant in our atmosphere but no increase in warming has occurred. Any warming patterns are due to “WIND.” The Ice polar caps and thicker and more abundant. VP Al Gore predicted that they would have all melted by now. Please stop this insanity. Man Made Global Warming is a HOAX people. A political venture from people on the left trying to control you in every aspect of your life.

    This is an important issue, and I wish we could get past the politically based argument relating to the scientific reality of climate change. The very foundation of the concern about increased carbon dioxide is based on physics, but the outcomes are hidden by the variability in weather conditions. There is no doubt about the threats that climate change presents to us all.

    I wish we could have more discussion about approaches to mitigating and preventing climate change. As Industrial Hygienists and safety professionals we need to be ready to address those impacts on worker health and safety related both to climate change, as well as to the technologies and impacts of a change in how we capture and use energy.

    What are the hazards of producing and installing solar panels? Wind mill hazards?

    We can plan in advance, and ensure that job hazards are controlled in these rapidly growing industries.

    Glad to hear NIOSH has established a work group on this topic. Please stay in communication with state occupational health programs (e.g., in health depts.) via our listserve or other means so we can stay informed and perhaps collaborate on activities.

    Excellent analysis of this multi-faceted problem. Glad that NIOSH is beginning to take action now because this is happening a lot sooner than most of us

    There are too many basic H&S issues to deal with to start to address this political mess. Weather is weather. The data now shows there has been no warming for 17 years. No news here. When you hear of cap and trade, greenhouse gas taxes, global warming is just another way to redistribute wealth.

    Money and efforts should be aimed at educating the public on H&S good practices and the hazards out there at the high school level as our people enter the work force so that they know to ask questions, protect them selves and break the habit of “that’s the way it has always been done.”

    After 20 years as a workers’ compensation judge, I’ve become an “accidental activist” on all things related to climate change. It good to see NIOSH involved.

    There’s no scientific debate that global warming is real. We’ve warmed almost 1C since 1880.

    This time it’s caused by humans. Since 1950, to a 95% degree of certainty ALL of the warming has been caused by human activity. In fact, if just natural factors were added up–the earth’s orbital, axis and perturbation changes, incoming solar radiation, volcanoes, clouds, etc.– we’d have cooled slightly since 1950.

    It’s dangerous. There’s a litany of horribles from “A” (acid oceans) to “Z” (zoological extinction).

    But, perhaps most troubling are the timing issues.

    First, it’s urgent. To stay below the 2C threshold for truly dangerous warming, we have less than 10 years to hit a global emissions peak on CO2 followed by dramatic reductions of at least 3% per year for the rest of the century.

    Second, it’s irreversible. A 2009 study led by (then) NOAA climate scientist Susan Solomon found that once we stop ALL CO2 emissions, temperatures will not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. There’s no reverse gear for a jaw-dropping 40-50 generations. Global warming is not like gay rights or prison reform where we wake up and decide we want to do things differently–that we can change things in a few years or decades. This makes global warming a unique social problem.

    Third, not only can’t we go backward on temperatures (or acidified oceans or species extinction)–at least on any human time scale. But if we cross certain tipping points for warming, humans will lose any ability to stop further warming. The truly scary part of global warming is that if we warm enough–the best estimates are somewhere in the 4-7C range–the physics and chemistry of the earth will continue warming us for thousands of years–even if we drop immediately to zero human GHG emissions. Human action become irrelevant. (It’s like hitting the brakes after the car has gone over the cliff. It won’t matter. The laws of gravity take over.) And, instead of 6C warming–which is catastrophic–we’ll warm 12C to 20C–and human civilization as we know it will end.

    Unfortunately, in the last two years, the following conservative organizations have all issued reports predicting 4-7C warming by the end of the century if we continue “business as usual” with respect to burning fossil fuels: The World Bank (2012); Pricewaterhouse Coopers (2012); International Energy Agency (2012); International Panel on Climate Change (2014) and the world’s largest scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2014).

    We need a federal price on carbon that reflects its real social costs. There are smart ways and dumb ways to do it. The smart way–the one that will actually generate net new jobs and grow GDP–is a revenue-neutral carbon tax which taxes fossil fuels coming out of the ground or across the border, and gives every nickel back to American households in monthly checks in equal per capita amounts. With equal per capita shares, about 2/3 of American households would break even or come out ahead. They would get more back in the monthly dividend check than they paid in higher energy costs.

    As an environmental scientist, and air quality specialist for the last 32 years and CIH for the last 26 years, I have looked at this issue carefully and been concerned. However, when you tell me the science is settled and there is no debate but the facts show none of the models are accurate and they have to modify or cherry pick data to support the “theory”, but mostly if you won’t or “can’t” discuss or debate (read that as support or prove your case) that means you don’t have a case and your data won’t support it, in other words human caused global warming is BS. The article does a nice job of parroting the “Party line” on global warming but hopefully the scientists at NIOSH will look at the real data not stuff they are spoon fed and reach some logical conclusions. This is normal climate variability, so far it is very minor ( it doesn’t follow the “climate scientists” models) and it may get worse but not because of us. Its happened before and it will happen again and there is nothing we can do about it.

    The latest edition of the ASHRAE Handbook Fundamentals (2013), indicates that the climate is changing. Data from 6443 weather stations from around the world has been collected and analyzed. There is no discussion about the WHY, just that it is.

    The data shows that both the heating and cooling temperatures are moving up slightly. Using the root mean square differences the temperature has increased .74 deg. F, and the cooling design temperature has also increased .70 deg. F.

    These temperature swings may look like alot, but consider that this has generally occurred over a 25 year duration of climate data recording. Given that the climate is subject to natural swings, my opinion is that this isn’t enough to worry about in the short term – again just my opinion.

    Should we attempt to reduce our emissions? Yes. However, it isn’t enough to upset our economy and that of the world by instituting new regulations, taxes and pay-offs to cronies.

    I received a degree in Environmental Health in the mid 90’s, and have been hearing this theory for years before that. All of the predictions of how hot is was going to get have proved to be false. Rather than following the Scientific Method and starting over when your theory has been proven false, these socialist change their target. Yes, socialist! If you look at what they attacking, and how mad they get when they are proven wrong, you can see that they are after the American economy.
    I am now working in the safety field because the Environmental field is too political. No science, just politics.
    As for the new term “Climate Change”, yes in the summer it is hot and in the winter it is cold. Safety professionals need to focus on reality of the seasons, not the fantasy of Global Warming.

    if just natural factors were added up–the earth’s orbital, axis and perturbation changes, incoming solar radiation, volcanoes,

    good to hear that NIOSH is beginning to take action, it would be g8 if governments & companies could switched in to more environmental friendly alternative energy solutions

    It’s nice to see the climate change bull is infiltrating every crevice of society. To impose yet more financial burdens on our society on the word of the United Nations is criminal. Just another avenue to take money from the US and give to the dictators that are the true oppressors. Save the propaganda on climate change for the Al Gore Lovefests.

    Funny how the posts from the climate change deniers submit their posts anonymously or just give their first name. If they don’t stand behind their misinformed rhetoric then why should anyone listen to them?

    There is strong evidence that climate is changing and will continue to change unless we move to more sustainable lifestyle. Whether we discuss the science behind climate change or we accept the reality, the fact remains that we need to change. Thanks a lot NIOSH by chipping into climate change towards OHS practice. I would suggests that we move forward by integrating all mitigation and adaptation measures necessary for OHS practice. Lifestyle towards low carbon development is inevitable whether we like it or not. Nice article indeed

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