How will rising temperatures affect the world's workers?

A new UN report suggests that, as global surface temperatures continue to rise, outdoor workers will face greater challenges.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
An aerial view shows field workers picking vegetables on a farm in Oxnard, California in February, 2015.

A new report released by the United Nations (UN) this week found that climate change can worsen health and safety for workers in outdoor professions and cause billions of dollars worth of lost productivity.

The study by the international organization focused on the effects that the Earth’s gradually rising temperature can have on workers and, in turn, the global economy. Climate change’s impact on working conditions can be felt through the growing number of “very hot” days and heat waves each year, and more.

“This rising heat in the workplace is a significant concern to any person working out-of-doors or in indoor conditions without climate control or with ineffective control of ambient temperatures,” the report stated.

The UN found that agricultural enterprises are the most likely to be negatively impacted by heat, while manufacturing and service professions could be at risk as well. But, “even basic office and desk tasks are compromised at high levels of heat as exhaustion sets in.”

The negative health effects could in some cases prove fatal, the report said, particularly as exposure to higher temperatures creates lapses in safety. And aside from impacts at the workplace, “[d]aily family activities” can expose workers and their households to extreme heat.

"Those who work in the fields may ruin their health just by trying to put a meal on the table," International Centre for Climate Change and Development director Saleemul Huq said in a statement.

Extreme heat does not affect every area around the world, but the problem is pervasive. The UN cited a 2016 study that found that 87 percent of workers, male and female, across a variety of professions, reported health issues during the hottest three months of the year, and that nearly half reported lost productivity. Another study noted that working women and migrants are particularly vulnerable

The impact of heat on global economies and productivity is especially concerning given that most of the world’s population lives in places with high wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT). WBGT is a composite measurement that takes into account the effects temperature, weather, climate, and radiative heat have on people. Around four billion people live within tropical and subtropical regions, where WBGT is generally higher.

The report presented a variety of adverse economic and medical conditions that may arise due to the changing climate, but also listed recommendations for governments and employers to potentially work on the problem. As, “[l]ate recognition in science has delayed policy responses,” the study states that future prevention is the most likely solution to have a positive impact, encouraging a focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and striving to keep global temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius.

Another preventative effort could involve the adaptation of work and workplaces to higher temperatures, and a proactive approach to reducing workers’ exposure. On a larger scale, companies can begin to make an effort to reduce jobs that require outdoor work, although some say that larger organizations are falling behind laborers’ efforts to beat the heat.

“Climate change is going to be a major issue for unions in the years ahead,” an International Labor Organization spokesman told Climate Central. “It is a significant problem already and workers and unions are far ahead of governments and employers when it comes to putting on pressure about the urgency to take action.”

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