Too hot to work?

The ILO invited Professor Tord Kjellström to shed light on the impacts of rising heat due to climate change on occupational health risks and worker productivity.

Analysis | 14 December 2016
Currently, 4 billion people live in the tropical and sub-tropical belt regions that will suffer most from extreme heat. In particular, workers in sectors such as agriculture, construction, mining and oil refining are most vulnerable. Indeed, workers most affected are those who need to work continuously at high physical intensity, in manufacturing factories without cooling system facilities and migrants exposed to poor and informal working conditions. Besides, the effects of rising heat will be more severe in urban areas compared to rural areas due to the “urban heat island effect”.

These negative impacts are not only found in developing countries. In 2003, France witnessed an additional number of 14,000 mortalities with an increased death rate among the working age groups linked to the heat wave of that year.

Heat stress increases workers’ risk of daily dehydration, exposure to toxic chemicals resulting from increased heat induced evaporation, vector-borne diseases and work-related injuries such as heat stroke.

Extreme heat results in loss of work capacity and labour productivity, thus entailing significant economic consequences. For instance, extreme heat exposure influences workers’ work time, potentially extending their working hours given that many low-skilled workers are paid per output. However, in the long run, loss of annual daylight work hours in the tropical and sub-tropical belt regions will affect the GDP and income trends of those countries, coupled with the challenges of high population growth. To illustrate, in 2025 China could lose an estimated 401 billion USD PPP.

It is thus imperative for policy-makers to consider the effects of rising temperature and increased incidence of heat waves resulting from climate change on workers’ health and labour productivity and its implications for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Prof. Kjellström is leading the EU funded HEAT SHIELD project, which is dedicated to improve heat resilience in European workers and provide know-how to implement methods and procedures that may secure health and productivity during present and future climatic scenarios.