Increasing Heat stress as an occupational health issue

A new report from the European Trade Union Institute is a call to action for preventive management of extreme heat conditions as part of occupational health and safety policies for government and workplaces.  Heatwaves as an occupational hazard: The impact of heat and heatwaves on workers’ health, safety and wellbeing and on social inequalities was released on December 2, and argues that heat impacts go far beyond heat illnesses such as heat stroke, since workers are exposed to other factors of heat stress and also because heat exacerbates other underlying conditions and other occupational hazards. The report includes appendices, for example:  the “Resolution on the need for EU action to protect workers from high temperatures”, adopted at the Executive Committee Meeting of the European Trade Union Confederation in December 2018, (pages 60-61) and “An agreement for a company action plan” (page 62-65), a detailed guide for developing workplace action plans, to be developed in cooperation with companies, workers, and workplace representatives.   

Although the ETUI report includes summary statistics about occupational heat stress, the latest facts and statistics about all the health impacts of climate change appear in the 2021 edition of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, released in October just before COP26.  Amongst the highlighted findings: Indicator 1.1.3: the past four decades saw an increase in the number of hours in which temperatures were too high for safe outdoor exercise; Indicator 1.1.4: “In a rising trend since at least 1990, 295 billion hours of potential work were lost across the globe in 2020 due to heat exposure—ie, the equivalent to 88 work hours per employed person.” (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India had the greatest losses – with the equivalent to 216–261 hours lost per employed person in 2020).  Indicator 4.1.3 discusses  loss of earnings from heat-related labour capacity reduction, finding that that the impact on workers’ earnings is significant, both for the worker and for the GDP of countries.

The Lancet Countdown report analyses all health impacts, including extreme weather events, forest fires, vector-borne diseases etc. and overall, concludes that  “As with COVID-19, the health impacts of climate change are inequitable, with disproportionate effects on the most susceptible populations in every society, including people with low incomes, members of minority groups, women, children, older adults, people with chronic diseases and disabilities, and outdoor workers.”  It provides sophisticated data analysis on  44 indicators, organised in five “domains”: climate change impacts, exposures, and vulnerabilities; adaptation, planning, and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; economics and finance; and public and political engagement.

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