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.

World Health Organization issues new air quality standards in response to growing evidence of the health impacts of pollution

On September 22, for the first time in 16 years, the World Health Organization updated its Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) , based on the rapidly growing scientific evidence that air pollutants can effect human health at even lower concentrations than previously understood. WHO’s new guidelines recommend air quality levels for 6 “classic pollutants”: particulate matter (PM), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO), and also highlight good practices for the management of certain types of particulates for which there is not yet sufficient evidence to set guideline levels (for example, black carbon/elemental carbon, ultrafine particles, particles originating from sand and dust storms). The press release states: “Clean air should be a fundamental human right and a necessary condition for healthy and productive societies. However, despite some improvements in air quality over the past three decades, millions of people continue to die prematurely, often affecting the most vulnerable and marginalized populations.”  The accompanying Fact Sheet provides key statistics, and a report in The Guardian   summarizes some of the most shocking , including:

“Every one of the 100 most populous cities in the world exceeded the new WHO guideline for tiny particle pollution in 2020, according to Greenpeace analysis. This includes Tokyo, Shanghai, New York, Lagos, London, and Delhi, with the latter exceeding the limit by 17 times.”

And what is one of the most dangerous kinds of pollution, even in cities?   “Mortality risk attributable to wildfire-related PM2·5 pollution: a global time series study in 749 locations” is a pioneering study published on September 1 in Lancet Planetary Health. It analyzes data from 749 cities in 43 countries and regions during 2000–16 and concludes that while wildfires are far from the only source of PM 2.5 pollution in cities, the PM 2.5 exposure from wildfires was more deadly, and longer-lasting, than fine particle pollution from other urban sources – probably because of the chemical makeup and smaller size of the particles in wildfire smoke.