In the near future increasing global temperatures will reportedly cost the world economy as much as $2 trillion. By 2030, in many parts of the world, particularly in Southeast Asia, increasing temperatures are expected to make working conditions unbearable, taking a toll on employee productivity. Internationally, 43 countries are expected to see declines in their GDP as a result of reductions in productivity.
While the economic concerns are grave, the social costs, financial as well as human, are also grave and will add greatly to projected costs. The occupational health and safety of workers, as a result, must form a cornerstone to any consideration of the threats of climate change.
Impact on workplace safety
High temperatures increase ozone and other pollutants in the air, aggravating asthma and other health conditions. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that extreme high air temperatures present a significant danger to health and contribute directly to exasperation and/or death from cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention cautions also notes that heat stress can increase cases of heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Decreased chemical tolerance and fatigue are additional dangers related to heat stress.
These concerns may jeopardize workplace safety indirectly through reduced attention to safety and irritably-induced carelessness. Workers in heavy labour, agriculture and manufacturing are at the greatest risk for exposure to extreme heat. These workers, typically among the lowest paid, are also often the least able to afford or seek appropriate health care.
Increasing temperatures will also demand structural changes to the workplace that could shift more power to employers over their workers’ health, increasing the potential for tragedies. For instance, extreme heat is expected to pose a productivity problem due in part to the fact that workers will require more rest in response to the heat. Workers will need to work longer hours to achieve the desired level of output. How employers respond to this economic difficulty may determine the well-being of workers.
Unfortunately, employers are not always willing to prioritize the health of workers over the desire for productivity. As we reported here, in R. v. Vadim Kazenelson, a project manager working at a Toronto high-rise project was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison after he put the interests of productivity above workplace safety, leading to the deaths of several employees. Given that climate change is likely to have the largest impact on workers in nations with less labour regulations than are found in Canada, the possibility of workers’ health being jeopardized is all the more likely.
Is there a political solution?
The first step to protecting the health and safety of workers from adverse effects of climate change is to ensure strong labour protections are in place. This is an area where much work must be done.
As noted in a recent report, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has found that most national climate and employment policies fail to consider the impact of climate change on health and productivity in the workplace. In other words, we are not prepared to tackle the costs or threats climate change presents to workers. Political solutions can make a difference in filling this void to protect workers. All that is required is the political will.
A paper prepared by the Global Union Research Network presents several preconditions that must be met if we are to find solutions to the negative social impacts that climate change policies (or the lack of policies) could have on workers. To this end, a number of questions must be addressed and included in policy debates and decisions. These may include:
· What will happen to workers and workplaces in weather sensitive sectors in the different regions of the world?
· What alternative jobs are there for laid-off workers?
· What kind of unemployment benefits for workers are in place?
· What will happen to workers who have to migrate because jobs or even land do not exist anymore?
· Who will finance the social costs of environmental change and how will it be done?
No country is immune to the consequences of climate change, and the issues expected to be of grave concern in Asia must also be addressed in North America in a proactive, not a reactive, manner. Government, business and workers are all exposed to the dangers of climate change and must work in tandem to find solutions that will protect from its human and economic costs. Though just some possible questions, the above-noted considerations may be a good place to start this process.