Over the 20th century, our burning of fossil fuels and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, have caused global surface temperatures to rise by 0.8°C. Experts expect that if we continue ‘business as usual’, temperatures could increase further by up to 2°C by 2050. Many people are familiar with the negative impacts that climate change will have on food security and on increasing natural disasters. However, many of you may not be aware of the impact that climate change will have on the workforce.
Already over a billion workers in vulnerable countries, struggle to work in excessive workplace temperatures. Those most at risk, work in outside roles or places where temperature control is inadequate. This risk increases further for those working in equatorial countries such as North, West Africa or Central America, where climates are heating up faster than elsewhere. Increasing temperatures have serious affects for workers’ health, and working long hours in these conditions can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke or even death. As well as threatening worker health, increased heat could also reduce productivity. This could result in up to 10% losses in working hours, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Reduced productivity will negatively impact on worker income and countries’ economic output, particularly in developing countries like India and Nigeria. The IPCC predict that increasing temperatures could reduce productivity by 2 trillion USD by 2030. Over 50% of the workforce in middle and lower income countries are exposed to this threat, making already vulnerable populations even more vulnerable. Action needs to be taken to help ensure that these workers are protected, otherwise lives could be threatened and countries’ economies will suffer.
So what is the ILO doing about this? If ignored, this issue will undermine any progress made towards achieving decent work or the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In 2016, the ILO collaborated with several multinational organisations such as the World Health Organisation and Climate Vulnerable Forum, to research extreme heat in the workplace. From this research the report produced highlighted the fact that climate change’s impact on workers is not being acknowledged properly in climate or employment policies. This is not acceptable, considering the significant impact that this will have on populations in developing countries.
The ILO recommends several measures and guidelines in their joint study ‘Climate Change and Labour: Impacts of Heat in the Workplace’. Firstly, that mitigation of climate change, through plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions will help reduce the risk of extreme heat. The ILO also recommends direct measures such as engineering solutions, protective clothing, education and awareness campaigns, and strengthening labour institutions. In addition to this are indirect protection measures to shift economies towards work where employees work inside.
Whilst these ILO guidelines provide an effective starting point, alone are not enough. During the opening meeting of the 329th Session of the ILO Governing Body, it was reassuring to hear the ILO members’ give support for prioritising environmental sustainability and tackling climate change urgently. That countries are taking climate change seriously, will increase the likelihood of them wanting to tackle extreme workplace heat. Improved awareness of the issue and education on how to deal with it needs to be a priority for vulnerable countries and employers. Unless combated now, the health of millions of workers could be put at risk. The ILO must continue to promote climate change mitigation and push the issue of extreme workplace heat forward in their work, especially if they wish to achieve the goal of decent work for all.
Isobel Jenkinson is a Postgraduate Taught Student in Human Resource Management at the Sheffield University Management School.