Increasing frequency and intensity of heat stress bring dangers to outside workers and will trigger migration

The 40-plus temperatures and melting asphalt of Australia’s latest heat wave  seem hard to understand for North Americans shivering under a polar vortex, but both temperature extremes relate to climate change, and both can be deadly for vulnerable groups, including outdoor workers.  On December 22, a new scientific paper was published in Environmental Research Letters and summarized in layman’s terms by Climate News Network as  “Humidity is the  real heat wave threat”  (December 24).   In “Temperature and humidity based projections of a rapid rise in global heat stress exposure during the 21st century”  in Environmental Research Letters,   scientists at Columbia University’s  Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory used numerous models to project  frequency of high wet-bulb readings, (a scale which combines heat and humidity). The authors project that in the south-east U.S., where current wet-bulb temperatures now reach 29 or 30°C only occasionally, such highs could occur 25 to 40 days per year by the 2070’s or 2080’s,  and wet-bulb temperatures of 35°C  could occur on one or two days a year.  (35°C on a wet-bulb scale is considered the limit of human survivability.)

The situation would be worse in parts of South America,  China, and especially in Northeast India and coastal West Africa, where there is little cooling infrastructure, relatively low adaptive capacity, and rapidly growing populations. The authors conclude that “ heat stress may prove to be one of the most widely experienced and directly dangerous aspects of climate change, posing a severe threat to human health, energy infrastructure, and outdoor activities ranging from agricultural production to military training.” One might add, to any outdoor worker, including those in agriculture, construction , delivery, and emergency responders.

Similar warnings were published for farmers in Asia in “Deadly heat waves projected in the densely populated agricultural regions of South Asia” in Science Advances (August 2, 2017),  summarized by Inside Climate News.    Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles concluded  “The most intense hazard from extreme future heat waves is concentrated around densely populated agricultural regions of the Ganges and Indus river basins.”

But a recent article from Climate News Network  shows that we’re all in this together.  ” Warming drives climate refugees to Europe”  (Dec. 22) summarizes a study which combined EU asylum-application data with projections of future warming, and concludes that even under optimistic scenarios, asylum applications to the EU would increase by 28% by 2100 . The article concludes “Though poorer countries in hotter regions are most vulnerable to climate change, our findings highlight the extent to which countries are interlinked, and Europe will see increasing numbers of desperate people fleeing their home countries.”



The Lancet measures the impact of climate change on public health, productivity and more


The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change is a global, interdisciplinary research collaboration which has published an annual review since 2016.   The Lancet Countdown’s 2017 Report  tracks 40 indicators across five areas, and concludes that the human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible. Of particular interest, Indicator 1.3 states that  “global physical labour capacity in populations exposed to temperature change has decreased by around 5.3% between 2000 and 2016.”  Other alarming statistics:  between 2000 and 2016, the number of vulnerable people exposed to heatwave events has increased by around 125 million; without further action against climate change, over 1 billion people may be at risk of become climate change migrants by the end of the century.  The full report is available here (registration required, free).

In addition to the global report,  the Lancet Countdown produces country-specific reports;  the Briefing for Canadian Policy-makers was  written in partnership with the Canadian Public Health Association.  It  makes several  recommendations for Canadian action, including • Phase out coal-powered electricity in Canada by 2030 or sooner, with a minimum of two thirds of the power replaced by non-emitting sources, and any gap made up by lowest-emitting natural gas technology. Track and cost the health benefits of the transition in Canada and globally; • Develop a National Active Transport Strategy for Canada to coordinate improvements to walking, cycling and transit environments. This should receive priority funding, with healthcare cost savings calculated in order to demonstrate the cost offset of the investments. • Enhance support for telecommuting and telehealth options. Within health systems, gather and analyze data on kilometers, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and costs saved by telehealth in order to help drive systems change. • Increase funding for research into the local health impacts of resource extraction, with a focus on impacts on Indigenous populations.• Integrate Health Impact Assessments as a core component of the federal Environmental Assessment process.Lancet_twitter_card_5

Pollution cost Canada $2 billion in Lost Labour Output alone

The June 2017 report, Costs of Pollution in Canada: Measuring the impacts on families, businesses and governments reviews and synthesizes existing studies to produce the most comprehensive assessment of pollution and its costs  in Canada to date. Some quick facts: the cost of climate change-related heat waves in Canada is estimated to have been $1.6 billion in 2015; Smog alone cost Canadians $36 billion in 2015. But the report also provides detailed estimates, organized in three categories: 1.  Direct Welfare Costs: (Harm to health and well-being such as  lower enjoyment of life, sickness and premature death); 2.  Direct Income Costs – (Direct out of pocket expenses for families (e.g. medications for asthma), businesses (e.g. increased maintenance costs for buildings) and governments (remediation of polluted sites); and 3. Wealth impacts.

Direct Welfare Costs of pollution, the most studied and understood,  are estimated as at least $39 billion in 2015, or about $4,300 for a family of four.  The Direct Income Costs   that could be measured amounted to $3.3 billion in 2015, but the study cautions that this many important costs could not be measured, and full impacts on income were likely in the tens of billions of dollars.  In this category, the study estimates  Lost Labour Outputs, using a metric derived from the 2016  OECD study,  The  Economic Consequences of Outdoor Air Pollution.  The OECD estimates outdoor air pollution to cost 0.1% of national GDP, which, when applied to Canada’s  2015 GDP of approximately  $1,986 billion, implies a costs of about $2 billion in lost labour output alone. And finally, Wealth impacts, or costs on value of assets , are said to be the least understood of pollution costs, about which, “We simply do not know how much pollution costs us in terms of lost wealth”.

Costs of Pollution in Canada: Measuring the impacts on families, businesses and governments was prepared by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), with funding from the Ivey Foundation; the full report is available in English- only. Summaries are in English  and French.Short  videos were derived in cooperation with the Conference Board of Canada to focus on key topics:  e.g. extreme weather, contaminated sites, and smog .

Climate change has consequences for mental health in the workplace

Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance  is a report released at the end of March by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica. The goal is to raise public awareness of the issue and to provide “climate communicators, planners, policymakers, public health professionals, and other leaders the tools and tips needed to respond to these impacts and bolster public engagement on climate solutions.”  Although it doesn’t directly address workplace issues, much of the discussion is relevant.  For example, the report catalogues the acute mental health impacts that result from the horror and disruption of natural disasters or extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina –  depression,  disrupted social relationships, domestic violence, and heightened intergroup aggression.  The report also highlights women as being at higher risk: “because, on average, women have fewer economic resources than men, women may also be more affected, in general, by the stress and trauma of natural disasters.” (p.39).

Extreme weather and disasters focus attention, but there are also chronic impacts resulting from longer- term climate changes – the key example given is a proven increase in violence and inter-personal aggression associated with higher temperatures.   Certain occupational groups are highlighted for their high risk to climate-related anxiety, including first responders to natural disasters, but also including health care-givers, and those directly employed in natural settings – conservation officers, park rangers.

The final section of the report deals with tips to build resilience at the individual and community level.  It urges that training be provided for first responders so that they can identify and deal with appropriate compassion for the victims of natural disasters.

Summer’s heat can be deadly for workers

thermometer and sunWe know all know this summer is hot, but what does it mean for workers? In These Times published an article by Elizabeth Grosman in July, “As Temperatures Climb Across the Country, Workers Will Suffer”. Her article examines the situation in the U.S., reporting that in 2015, “the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) received more than 200 reports of workers hospitalized because of heat-related illness and at least eight deaths associated with heat exposure. In 2014, 2,630 U.S. workers suffered from heat illness and 18 died on the job from heat stroke and related causes. Since 2003, an average of more than 30 workers a year have died of heat-related causes.  The article also point out that 9 of the 30 deaths occurred to workers who had been on the job less than 3 days – making this an issue which might be improved by training and stronger OHS contract language.  In 2014, OSHA launched a “Heat Rest Shade” campaign to remind employers of their obligation to provide respite for workers  , and with online training materials   and information resources  .

The Ontario Ministry of Labour updated their guidance re Heat Stress in 2014, and the Heat Stress Awareness Guide published by the Occupational Health and Safety Council of Ontario in 2007 is still valuable.  It too points out the risks to new employees and those who are not conditioned to heat.  For  Canada-wide information, see the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Fact Sheets here  or  see (from 2010)  Protecting Workers from Heat Stress: What are an Employer’s Legal Obligations?

Being unemployed is also a factor in heat-releated illness according to an article in Environmental Health Perspectives .   Researchers led by Hung Chak Ho of Simon Fraser University in B.C. developed a block-by-block map of neighbourhoods in Vancouver and discovered that those blocks with a high proportion of low-income earners, a high proportion of renters and a high unemployment rate are at greater risk of mortality than the elderly.  See “Unemployed people, not the elderly, at highest risk”   for a summary.

And amidst the high heat and drought that all of us are feeling in central Canada this summer comes scientific validation of our experience:  the release of State of the Climate 2015  , the 26th edition of the assessment released each summer as a supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.  Canada is profiled in Chapter 7 :  “The annual average temperature in 2015 for Canada was 1.3°C above the 1961–90 average, and was the 11th warmest year since nationwide records began in 1948.” (The warmest year on record for Canada to date has been 2010, at 3.0°C above average.)  Globally, the report catalogues several symbolic mileposts: notably, it was 1.0°C warmer than preindustrial times, and the Mauna Loa observatory recorded its first annual mean carbon dioxide concentration greater than 400 ppm in 2015.  A thorough summary appeared in The Guardian (August 2). ( State of the Climate is compiled by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Weather and Climate, from contributions from scientists from 62 countries, and is the recognized authority on global climate indicators and  notable weather events).