Weather 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].
The 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.
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  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 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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