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Climate Change and Safety at Work

Climate change is focussing attention on key OSH issues

Climate change is throwing new light on key issues in occupational safety and health (OSH). This is true of physical factors in the work environment (e.g. heat) just as much it is for occupational conditions (e.g. skin cancer caused by UV radiation), infectious diseases (spread by new vectors), and hazardous substances (e.g. in energy storage technologies). At the same time climate change is demanding the adoption of broader, new perspectives on business processes, product life-cycles, and supply chains as society addresses problems like decarbonisation, the requirements sustainable products will have to satisfy, recycling in the circular economy, and the utilisation of sustainable energy sources.

Construction worker with signal waistcoat and helmet looks onto construction site © iStock | LightFieldStudios

From an OSH point of view, physical influences in the work environment are among the established stress factors that have been thoroughly investigated and about which ergonomics has arrived at well-founded conclusions, in some cases decades ago. The same also applies when it comes to the prevention of occupational diseases. The protective measures all this knowledge makes possible can help in tackling the challenges of climate change. In this respect, it needs to be clarified how the expertise occupational safety and health practitioners have built up can be tapped into. How, for instance, should assessment criteria be adapted? Where are there gaps in what is known? And what should be done to close such gaps? The interactions between different stress factors also have to be taken into consideration, one example being how the combined impacts of heat and stress affect employees’ health and performance. 

OSH professionals are, however, also called upon to devote more attention to other issues closely linked with climate change. New challenges will be thrown up as the economy is transformed by the introduction of resource-efficient, climate-neutral products and processes. One such challenge will be the handling of hazardous substances where there is no technical alternative to the use of chemicals with characteristics that threaten workers’ health in energy storage technologies. 

The decarbonisation that is being pursued in response to climate change is refashioning production and supply chains, sometimes dramatically. The corollary of this is the growing prominence of regenerative raw materials, biological process steps, and electrification based on alternative energy sources. For those who work in occupational safety and health, this means re-evaluating the risks posed by hazardous substances in many workplaces, while the intentional and unintentional handling of biological agents are becoming increasingly significant. The new types of energy that will replace fossil fuels may also confront society with fresh dangers. 

Finally, sustainable products will not only have to satisfy requirements concerning their durability, reliability, and reusability. They will also have to meet standards that relate to their maintenance, reconditioning, reprocessing, and recycling. It is a particular challenge for OSH experts to keep track of how these processes are developing within product life cycles and monitor the new workplaces that are being created, especially as potential conflicts may arise between the aims of occupational safety and health and the demands of sustainability. 

The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin, BAuA) is currently doing research on a range of topics connected with climate change:

Heat

Higher air temperatures outdoors and inside buildings intensify the thermal loads on the body, the cardiovascular system for example. Losses of fluids and electrolytes due to sweating are often the result, which can cause risks to health. 

Climate change is driving the more frequent occurrence of heatwaves, which will also increase thermal loads in Germany and make their repercussions more problematic. 

In order to prevent harm to employees’ health as much as possible, it is necessary to follow the hierarchical TOP approach by taking Technical, Organisational, and Personal protective measures. Education about the correlations between climate change and health and the hazards individuals face is a fundamental intervention at the level of behavioural prevention. It can also be meaningfully supplemented by changes to work organisation (e.g. the adjustment of working times) and work design (e.g. lighter workwear). 

Further information about this topic can be found on the Climate at the Workstation pages

Solar UV radiation

Climate change is influencing the exposure of employees who work outdoors to solar UV radiation in various ways. The decline in average cloud cover and the consequent rise in the number of hours of sunshine are leading to mounting annual UV doses. As an outcome of global warming, it is to be expected people will spend more time outside and wear lighter clothing, above all in the spring, and behaviourally related increases in UV exposure will therefore be seen. Furthermore, low-ozone events, during which UV radiation is particularly intense, may occur more often at this time of year. Steps to ensure there is plenty of shade in work areas, the avoidance of exposure to high levels of UV during the middle of the day, and the wearing of long-sleeved clothing, head coverings, and sunglasses are the kinds of protective measures that could be implemented as part of a TOP strategy. 

Further information about this topic can be found on the Protection against UV radiation of the sun pages

Infectious diseases

Climate change’s interaction with two other factors, globalisation and the mobility of people and goods, may encourage outbreaks of new infectious diseases among employees as well. More should therefore be done to alert people who work outdoors and in the healthcare sector to the possible changes in the epidemiology of infectious conditions. In addition, workers’ health is also affected by their employment status, income, and access to healthcare systems. Nonetheless, the OSH tools that are currently available do offer employees appropriate protection against pathogens. This is also attributable to the emphasis placed on such tools being adapted as necessary to new situations and newly emerging pathogens.

Allergens and toxins

The alterations in air temperature and precipitation associated with climate change will bring about changes in the habitats of animals and plants. This will have an influence on the health of people in employment, above all due to the effects on plants that can trigger allergies. 

Some plants will produce more pollen on account of rising temperatures. Furthermore, the rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may strengthen the allergenic potential of particular types of pollen, as a result of which sufferers’ allergic reactions will last longer or be more severe. New allergies may be triggered in previously unaffected individuals.

Hazardous substances

The Green Deal and the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability have seen far-reaching changes initiated in the industrial and commercial sectors of the European economy. The safe design of activities involving hazardous substances is an important precondition for changes on this scale. Although, in principle, the aspiration is to systematically eliminate substances of very high concern from economic cycles, some chemicals in this group are indispensable to the success of the technological transformation that is taking place. These include the cobalt, nickel and lithium compounds used in electric vehicles. In future, partly with resource security in mind, the EU will adopt set recovery quotas for these substances, which are so important for Europe’s prosperity. As a way of contributing to sustainable development, the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin, BAuA) is advocating action to ensure recycling processes are safe with measures that apply risk-based criteria to protect employees’ health and will need to be supported by manufacturers and importers alike.

Further information about this topic can be found on the Hazardous Substances pages

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