Climate Change

- a workplace hazard

Introduction

It is no secret that climate change is a real threat to not just our work, but our lives and to the planet as a whole. The facts are that the world has warmed considerably since the mid-20th century as a result of human activity. (See: Global Climate Change Evidence, NASA). Scientists have known about the heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide since the 19th century and increased levels of greenhouse gases like this have cause the earth to warm.

The impact of climate change can be felt on an immense scale with natural disasters such as the destructive 2019-2020 bushfires across eastern Australia and dramatic hurricanes and flooding across the United States in 2021. Europe too saw extensive floods and fires in 2021.

While these disasters cause huge amounts of damage in a short time and present large challenges in safeguarding and mitigating their impact, the effects of climate change go beyond these localised disasters. Rising temperatures and sea levels, warming oceans and melting ice sheets impact on a global scale and either lead to or increase the severity of current risks and hazards in the workplace such as heat, poor air quality, exposure to disease and psychological stress.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in September 2021, just weeks before a major climate conference in Glasgow (in October 2021), Australian doctors warned Australia must significantly lift its commitment to the global effort to bring climate change under control, to save lives and protect health.  The letter called on the Prime Minister to commit to an ambitious national plan to protect health by cutting Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, aligned to science-based targets, this decade. 

The call came after the AMA Federal Council declared in September 2019 that climate change is real and will have the earliest and most severe health consequences on vulnerable populations around the world, including in Australia and the Pacific region.

The effect of climate change on current hazards

Heat

A factor that increases the impact of heat on workers is global warming caused by climate change. 2019 was the hottest year on record and the decade of 2011-2020 was the hottest decade on record. Aside from resulting in natural disasters such as bushfires and heatwaves, rising temperatures can create hazardous work conditions and amplify other risk factors.

Furthermore, natural disasters associated with rising temperatures and changing climatic conditions can create hazardous conditions not associated solely with heat. 

Air quality

Poor air quality can lead to many health risks.

Australia has exposure standards for airborne contaminants - hazardous substances used in workplaces. However, air quality can be affected by factors other than the workplace processes, or substances used.

Reports suggest that since the mid 1990s, ‘southeast Australia has experienced a 15 per cent decline in late autumn and early winter rainfall and a 25 per cent decline in average rainfall between April and May.’ (See: Air Quality News). This led to an increased risk of bushfires, creating a potential deadly threat not only due to the fire risk itself, but also from the toxic smoke that arises from it. 

This occurred as a result of the 2019/2020 bushfires in parts of Victoria and New South Wales where air quality in both Melbourne and Sydney declined to dangerous levels. In fact, smoke from the bushfires killed 12 times more people than the fires themselves. (see: Air Quality News).

Working under these conditions is hazardous to the health of workers, with increased risk of both short-term and long-term respiratory tract, lung and heart issues as a result of exposure to toxic smoke. As seen with dock and electrical workers in Sydney during the 2019/2020 bushfires, workers in unions have the power to stop work if it is a significant health risk. (See: Docks halt, electrical workers stop work as Sydney's pollution worsens, Sydney Morning Herald). As a result of the risks posed by fire smoke, the VTHC developed an Air Quality Standard. Read more: Air Quality

The degradation of air quality is not just something that occurs in acute circumstances such as bushfires. Decreased air quality as a result of rising smog, pollen and ozone levels over the long-term can also put workers' health at risk. This is particularly the case for workers with underlying respiratory and heart conditions such as asthma when phenomena like thunderstorm asthma events become more common due to climate change.

Exposure to new diseases 

An often overlooked aspect in disease risk is climate change and global warming leading to diseases and disease vectors that were previously seen in certain regions migrating to new regions as temperatures change. Aside from rising temperatures exacerbating existing diseases such as malaria in parts of the world where they are endemic, it can also lead to the introduction of new diseases in areas that did not previously have them.

For example, although currently Australia is free from malaria, it is predicted that as the climate changes, the conditions suitable for malaria transmission will be seen in places like Australia. This is also seen in diseases such as the Zika virus and Dengue fever. (See: How does climate change affect disease? Stanford Earth Matters Magazine, March 2019)

Although the above example is a prediction of the effects of climate change, we have already begun to see disease exposure increasing due to events caused by climate change. In 2020 there were destructive wildfires along the West Coast of the United States which, along with decreasing air quality, also led to extra COVID cases and deaths according to a study from Harvard University

As discussed in the air quality section above, pollution from wildfires/bushfires leads to a myriad of negative health outcomes such as asthma and other respiratory conditions. However, the Harvard University researchers also discovered that on days where there were heightened amounts of toxic particles in the air as a result of the wildfires, confirmed cases of COVID-19 also increased, at rates as high as 71 per cent in some areas. As the senior author of the study put it: ‘In this study we are providing evidence that climate change - which increases the frequency and the intensity of wildfires - and the pandemic are a disastrous combination.’

New diseases being introduced to Australia will have a massive impact on workers' health especially if government, employers and workplaces do not adequately prepare to combat this. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, if states leave it too late to fight disease, frontline workers are the ones most impacted.  Read more: Infectious diseases   

COVID-19 and climate change

According to the World Health Organisation, there is no evidence of a direct connection between climate change and the emergence or transmission of COVID-19. 

However, climate change may indirectly affect the COVID-19 response, as it undermines environmental determinants of health, and places additional stress on health systems.

And more generally, most emerging infectious diseases, and almost all recent pandemics, including COVID-19, originate in wildlife, and there is evidence that increasing human pressure on the natural environment may drive disease emergence. 

The WHO asks the question: What can the global response to COVID-19 teach us about our response to climate change?

The COVID-19 pandemic is a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which has claimed lives, and severely disrupted communities. Climate change is a gradually increasing stress that may be the defining public health threat of the 21st century. Nonetheless, common lessons can be drawn:

  • Ensuring universal health coverage (UHC), through well-resourced, equitable health systems, is essential to protect the public from both short and long-term health threats.
  • Guaranteeing global health security requires an all-hazards approach to preparedness, from infectious disease outbreaks, to extreme weather events, to climate change.  
  • Ensuring access to the positive environmental determinants of health, such as clean air, water and sanitation, safe and nutritious food, is an essential protection against all health risks. WHO estimates that avoidable environmental risks cause about a quarter of the global health burden.
  • Early action saves lives. Delay in responding to clear evidence of threats, whether from pandemics, or from climate change, increases human and socioeconomic costs.
  • Inequality is a major barrier in ensuring health and wellbeing, especially for the most vulnerable in society. Social and economic inequality manifests in unequal health risks. When faced with public health threats of a global scale, such as COVID-19 or climate change, we are only as strong as our weakest health system.

Psychological Stress

Natural disasters, which affect our ability to work or the viability of our work, can lead to increased psychological stress. This is a particular problem for emergency service and frontline workers who are tasked with responding to these disasters - the frequency and severity of which is rising due to climate change.

Natural disasters can lead to increased risk to mental health alongside the physical risks. Often, these mental health impacts may last longer than some of the physical health impacts arising from natural disasters. As seen in the aftermath of the 2019/2020 bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales, mental health claims by people directly impacted - including emergency service workers as well as residents - sharply rose. A report produced by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:  Australian bushfires 2019-20: exploring the short-term health impacts, examines a range of health data sources to assess the short-term health impacts of the bushfires. These included: emergency department visits, prescription and purchase of asthma medicines, mental health service use and GP visits. Results show clear associations between increased bushfire activity, including poor air quality, and people seeking assistance for their health. Read more: Psychosocial hazards

Conclusion - Climate change is an OHS issue

Combating climate change is not just an environmental issue, but also an OHS one as the impacts of climate change are far reaching and are felt by workers in a myriad of industries. For this reason, Australian unions treat climate change as a serious workplace issue, utilising all the tools in our OHS tool bag to reduce risks to workers from it. (See: How to Climate-Proof Your Workplace, ACTU) 

International developments

In September 2021, the US President Joe Biden announced his administration would introduce the USA’s first ever labour standard aimed at protecting workers from extreme heat, as part of a growing recognition of the dangers posed by warming temperatures caused by climate change. Read more: Extreme Heat Is Killing Workers, So the White House Is Adding Protections Vice news

The country's OHS regulator, OSHA will prioritise heat-related interventions and work inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees (27 degrees Celsius), the administration said. OSHA is already working to complete a programme before next summer that will target industries at higher risk of heat injuries, and to focus more resources on inspections. OSHA's  Heat illness prevention campaign

Last updated: October 25, 2021