Climate change a threat to workers

In the near future increasing global temperatures will
cost the world economy as much as $2 trillion. By 2030, in many parts of the
world, particularly in Southeast Asia, increasing temperatures are expected to
make working conditions unbearable, taking a toll on employee productivity. Internationally,
43 countries are expected to see declines in their GDP as a result of
reductions in productivity.

While the economic concerns are grave, the social
costs, financial as well as human, are also grave and will add greatly to
projected costs. The occupational health and safety of workers, as a result,
must form a cornerstone to any consideration of the threats of climate change.

on workplace safety

High temperatures increase ozone and other pollutants in the air,
aggravating asthma and other health conditions. T
he World Health
Organization (WHO)
that e
high air temperatures present a significant danger to health and contribute
directly to exasperation and/or death from cardiovascular and respiratory

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention cautions also
notes that heat stress can increase cases of heat-related illnesses, including
heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Decreased chemical tolerance and fatigue are
additional dangers related to heat stress.

These concerns may jeopardize workplace safety indirectly through
reduced attention to safety and irritably-induced carelessness.
in heavy labour, agriculture and manufacturing are at the greatest risk for
exposure to extreme heat. These workers, typically among the lowest paid, are
also often the least able to afford or seek appropriate health care.

Increasing temperatures will also demand structural
changes to the workplace that could shift more power to employers over their
workers’ health, increasing the potential for tragedies. For instance, extreme
heat is expected to pose a productivity problem due in part to the fact that
workers will require more rest in response to the heat. Workers will need to
work longer hours to achieve the desired level of output. How employers respond
to this economic difficulty may determine the well-being of workers.

Unfortunately, employers are not always willing to prioritize the health of workers over the desire for productivity. As we reported
in R. v. Vadim Kazenelson, a project
manager working at a Toronto high-rise project was sentenced to 3.5 years in
prison after he put the interests of productivity above workplace safety,
leading to the deaths of several employees. Given that climate change is likely
to have the largest impact on workers in nations with less labour regulations
than are found in Canada, the possibility of workers’ health being jeopardized
is all the more likely.

there a political solution?

The first step to
protecting the health and safety of workers from adverse effects of climate
change is to ensure strong labour protections are in place. This is an area
where much work must be done.
As noted in a recent report,
the International Labour Organization (ILO) has found that most national
climate and employment policies fail to consider the impact of climate change
on health and productivity in the workplace. In other words, we are not
prepared to tackle the costs or threats climate change presents to workers.
Political solutions can make a difference in filling this void to protect
workers. All that is required is the political will.

A paper
prepared by the Global Union Research Network presents several preconditions
that must be met if we are to find solutions to the negative social impacts that
climate change policies (or the lack of policies) could have on workers.  To this end, a number of questions must be
addressed and included in policy debates and decisions. These may include:

What will happen to workers and
workplaces in weather sensitive sectors in the different regions of the world?
What alternative jobs are there for
laid-off workers?
What kind of unemployment benefits
for workers are in place?
What will happen to workers who
have to migrate because jobs or even land do not exist anymore?
Who will finance the social costs
of environmental change and how will it be done?
Final thoughts

No country is immune to
the consequences of climate change, and the issues expected to be of grave
concern in Asia must also be addressed in North America in a proactive, not a reactive,
manner. Government, business and workers are all exposed to the dangers of
climate change and must work in tandem to find solutions that will protect from
its human and economic costs. Though just some possible questions, the
above-noted considerations may be a good place to start this process.

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