Released on July 1 by the International Labour Organiztion (ILO), Working on a warmer planet: The impact of heat stress on labour productivity and decent work presents estimates of the current and projected productivity losses at national, regional and global levels, and recommends policy and workplace actions. The report defines heat stress as “heat in excess of what the body can tolerate without suffering physiological impairment.” Roughly, it occurs at temperatures above 35°C, in high humidity. A growing body of research show that it restricts workers’ physical capabilities and work capacity and thus, productivity, and can lead to potentially fatal heatstroke.
The report projects that the equivalent of more than 2 per cent of total working hours worldwide will be lost every year by 2030. Agriculture and construction are the two sectors which will be worst affected , especially in south Asia, where job losses due to heat are projected to be 43 million jobs by 2030, and western Africa, where 9 million jobs are predicted to be lost. Other sectors especially at risk are environmental goods and services, refuse collection, emergency, repair work, transport, tourism, sports and some forms of industrial work. And as with so other climate change impacts, low-income countries are expected to suffer the worst, and people in the poorest regions will suffer the most.
Solutions: From the report introduction: “Solutions do exist. In particular, the structural transformation of rural economies should be speeded up so that fewer agricultural workers are exposed to high temperatures and so that less physical effort has to be expended in such conditions. Other important policy measures that can help are skills development, the promotion of an enabling environment for sustainable enterprises, public investment in infrastructure, and improved integration of developing countries into global trade. At the workplace level, enhanced information about on-site weather conditions, the adaptation of workwear and equipment, and technological improvements can make it easier for workers and their employers to cope with higher temperatures. Employers and workers should discuss together how to adjust working hours, in addition to adopting other occupational safety and health measures. Accordingly, social dialogue is a relevant tool for improving working conditions on a warming planet.”
The report chapters include a global overview, as well as chapters for Africa, The Americas (composed of 4 sub-regions: North America, Central America, South America, and The Caribbean) , Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, and Europe and Central Asia. The Americas discussion reiterates our favoured situation, with low levels of heat stress and relatively high labour standards, although the patterns remain consistent: “Whereas the impact of heat stress on labour productivity in Canada is practically zero, the United States lost 0.11 per cent of total working hours as a result of heat stress in 1995 and is projected to lose 0.21 per cent in 2030. The expected productivity loss in 2030 is equivalent to 389,000 full-time jobs. This effect is concentrated in the southern states of the country and concerns mostly outdoor workers, such as construction workers and farm workers in California.”
Outdoor workers and cancer: Working on a warmer planet includes a highlight section regarding North American farm workers which cites the “Sun Safety at Work Canada” programme , which began in 2016 and is funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. In 2014, as many as 7,000 skin cancers in Canada were attributed to work-related sun exposure, and outdoor workers have a 2.5-3.5 times greater risk of developing skin cancer than indoor workers. The Sun Safety at Work program focuses on skin cancer but also includes information about heat stress and eye damage in its Resource Library Downloadable publications for employers and individuals include fact sheets, videos and presentations .
Other recent, relevant reading:
“Changes in Temperature and Precipitation Across Canada” : Chapter 4 in the federal government’s Canada’s Changing Climate Report, released in 2019. It assesses observed and projected changes for Canada.
The Urban Heat Island Effect at the Climate Atlas of Canada website discusses the issue and provides links to some of the adaptive municipal programs.
Healthy Climate, Healthy New Brunswickers: A proposal for New Brunswick that cuts pollution and protects health, by Louise Comeau and Daniel Nunes, released by The Conservation Council of New Brunswick on June 25. It predicts that average temperatures in the 16 communities studied could rise 1.9 to 2.1 degrees Celsius between 2021 and 2050, and the number of days over 30 degrees are modelled to increase in the range of 122 to 300 per cent .
“Life and Death under the Dome” (May 23) in the Toronto Star , documents the summer of 2018 when at least 66 deaths in Montreal were attributed to heat.
Climate Change and Health: It’s Time for Nurses to Act published by the the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions includes heat stress in its overview of health-related dangers of climate change in Canada, and highlights the heat waves in Ontario and Quebec in 2018.
The Imperative of Climate Action to protect human health in Europe” released on June 3 by the European Academies Science Advisory Council is mostly focused on the general population, but does include discussion of heat stress and of its effects on productivity.
“Can the Paris Climate Goals Save Lives? Yes, a Lot of Them, Researchers Say” in the New York Times (June 5) summarizes an article from the journal Sciences Advances (June 5) . “Increasing mitigation ambition to meet the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal avoids substantial heat-related mortality in U.S. cities” reviews the literature about heat-related mortality and concludes that achieving the 1.5°C threshold of the Paris Agreement could avoid between 110 and 2720 annual heat-related deaths in 15 U.S. cities.