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Climate change threatens health of 70% of world’s workers

by Madaline Dunn

A new report issued by the International Labor Organisation has found that more than 70 per cent of the world’s workforce is likely to be exposed to health risks linked to climate change. 

The report, like the many others that came before it, issues a clear warning about the risks of climate change, both for workers’ health and economic output. 

The ILO report, “Ensuring Safety and Health at Work in a Changing Climate,” found that more than 2.4 billion workers of the world’s 3.4 billion workers, are likely to be exposed to excessive heat at some point during their work.

 According to the latest figures available, when this is calculated as a share of the global workforce, the figure has increased from 65.5 per cent to 70.9 per cent since 2000.

Fatal climate impacts 

In addition to this, the report estimates that 18,970 workers lose their lives annually due to climate change, with 22.87 million occupational injuries attributed to excessive heat and an estimated 26.2 million persons living with chronic kidney disease attributable to exposure to excessive heat at work.

However, beyond this, the report notes that many workers’ other health conditions are also linked to climate change, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, respiratory disorders, kidney dysfunction, and mental health conditions. 

Indeed, the report noted that 1.6 billion workers are exposed to ultraviolet radiation, with more than 18,960 work-related deaths annually due to non-melanoma skin cancer. Meanwhile, 1.6 billion workers are also exposed to increased risks of air pollution in the workplace, resulting in up to 860,000 work-related deaths annually.

On the other hand, there are more than 870 million agricultural workers who have potentially been exposed to pesticides, with more than 300,000 deaths attributed to pesticide poisoning annually. 

This is in addition to the more than 15,000 work-related deaths each year due to exposure to parasitic and vector-borne diseases.

Dr Manal Azzi, Global Team Lead on Occupational Safety & Health, ILO, stressed that working in safe and healthy environments is recognised as one of the ILO’s basic principles and rights at work and called for occupational safety and health considerations to become part of climate change responses – both policies and actions. 

“We must deliver on that commitment in relation to climate change, just as in every other aspect of work.” 

A bleak future for labour markets

This report echoes the warning issued by the ILO back in 2019, which forecasted a bleak future for labour markets in light of the intensifying climate crisis. 

Indeed, back then, the report expected that rising temperatures would lead to increased heat stress on workers and cause huge losses to the global economy.

Indeed, the report warned that rising temperatures would result in the loss of 80 million full-time jobs and 2.2 per cent of total working hours annually globally by 2030. This, it was shared, amounts to an equivalent of USD 2.4 trillion in economic losses annually.

Revealing how the situation is evolving, a study published by The Lancet found that exposure to heat led to a potential 470 billion hours of lost work globally in 2021, and disproportionately affected low- and middle-income countries, adding to the impact of the cost of living crisis.

However, more broadly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) expects that, from 2030 to 2050, climate change will cause roughly 250,000 deaths each year due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

Climate change causes 37% of heat deaths

At the same time, the WHO has confirmed that climate shocks and increasing pressures, such as changing temperatures, rainfall patterns, droughts, floods, and rising sea levels, are deteriorating both the environmental and social determinants of physical and mental health, with air, water, soil, diets and livelihoods all detrimentally impacted.  

In fact, the organisation referenced recent research that attributes 37 per cent of heat-related deaths to climate change caused by human activity.

Moreover, the percentage of heat-related deaths among people over the age of 65 has increased by 70 per cent over the last two decades.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, heat illness occurs when a person is exposed to high temperatures, and their body’s sweating mechanism fails, preventing cool; adding that millions of American workers are regularly exposed to heat in their workplaces, resulting in heat stroke and exhaustion, especially in jobs that require physical exertion. 

Further, it warned that climate change affects air quality in many ways, with some outdoor air pollutants expected to increase, such as particulates from dust resulting from drought and wildfire smoke. 

This means workers who work outdoors, including agricultural and migrant workers, are, in particular, more susceptible to these pollutants, potentially leading to respiratory diseases.

In addition, it warned that climate change is linked to the deterioration of workers’ mental health, especially for those working on the front lines, such as firefighters and healthcare workers.

By Hadeer Elhadary, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena – Arabic

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