Climate change is a serious concern for worker health and safety. It affects workers through rising temperatures, air pollution, extreme weather, biological hazards, and indoor climate control. The effects of climate change impact both indoor and outdoor workers, causing both to be vulnerable to a variety of hazards in the workplace. While workers of all kinds may be impacted by climate change, marginalized groups are on the front line of environmental hazards. The information below serves as an overview of how climate change is and will impact the workplace in the future. While policymakers play a major role in addressing climate change, employers can take steps to be aware and act to protect their workers.
Workers from a wide range of industries are and will continue to be impacted because of climate change. Specific populations impacted by climate change include agricultural workers, construction workers, emergency responders, commercial fishermen, paramedics and firefighters, and transportation workers. However, workers who perform labor in extreme conditions are all at risk.
While many may consider outdoor workers being primarily impacted by climate change, indoor workers are impacted too. According to the CDC, the higher temperatures resulting from climate change will require temperature-controlled buildings. Climate controlled buildings essentially take into consideration temperature and humidity.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that the key threats to workers’ health because of climate change includes heat illness, respiratory illnesses, physical and mental health effects, insect and tick-related diseases, and pesticide-related effects.
Overall, major health concerns resulting from climate change impacts include asthma, respiratory allergies and airway diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke, heat-related fatalities and more. It’s important for employers to understand the wide range of adverse health effects while implementing measures to protect workers.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) employers have a duty to protect workers from recognized serious hazards in the workplace. It’s important for workers to know their rights under this law. Workers have the right to do the following:
- Receive workplace safety and health training in a language you understand
- Work on machines that are safe
- Receive required safety equipment, such as gloves or a harness and lifeline for falls
- Be protected from toxic chemicals
- Request an OSHA inspection, and speak to the inspector
- Report an injury or illness, and get copies of your medical records
- Review records of work-related injuries and illnesses
- See results of tests taken to find workplace hazards
Out of the major workplace hazards influenced by climate change according to the CDC, the only federal law pertains to air quality. However, issues like some biological hazards, heat, and indoor climate are subject to the General Duty Clause, section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The General Duty Clause of the OSH Act explains that “employers have the responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards.”
Every year, thousands of workers face heat-related illnesses and injuries. Exposure to extreme heat can lead to heat stress and further illnesses or injuries, especially when workers are performing physically demanding labor. Heat exposure is a serious concern, and can increase the risk of injuries at work. Sources describe this by stating the injuries can include “those caused by sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses, dizziness, and reduced brain function.”
Workplace Fairness provides information on heat safety at work. To learn more about who is at risk, protective measures, and common questions, or concerns, visit our page on heat safety.
As described on our heat safety page, employers should establish protections and resources to keep workers safe. This includes a heat prevention program, rest and water breaks, adequate shade for outdoor workers, and proper training and education. Our heat safety page also cites that OSHA’s Occupational Exposure to Heat page explains what employers can do to keep workers safe and what workers need to know – including factors for heat illness, adapting to working in indoor and outdoor heat, protecting workers, recognizing symptoms, and first aid training.
OSHA has a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for outdoor and indoor heat-related hazards. It aims to encourage early interventions by employers when it comes to preventing heat illnesses and injuries. The interventions that the NEP encourages includes: water, rest, shade, training, and acclimatization procedures for new or returning employees, and more.
While there is currently no federal heat standard from OSHA, state OSHA plans can implement their own. These are the states with standards surrounding extreme heat and main points from the statute:
- California: California has a Heat Illness Prevention Standard for outdoor places of employment. It applies to industries like agriculture, landscaping, construction, oil and gas extraction, and transportation or delivery of agricultural products. It requires water breaks, access to shade, and training.
- Minnesota: This statute applies to indoor workplaces. Specifically, it covers air flow and circulation, heat conditions and specific temperatures employees should not be exposed to indoors, cold conditions, and circulated air.
- Oregon: Oregon recently implemented two new rules relating to heat illness for workers. The rule 437-002-0156 which applies to all workplaces, and rule 437-004-1131 applies to agricultural workplaces. These rules’ requirements include access to shade, drinking water, supervisor and employee training, acclimatization practices, and high heat practices.
- Washington: Washington has an outdoor heat exposure rule that covers temperature monitoring, water, shade and rest, acclimatization, training, and identifying and responding to heat illness. Washington has rules on outdoor heat exposure for General Industry, Agriculture, Firefighters/Fire Departments, and Wildland firefighters.
Biological hazards is a broad category that describes a biological threat to living organisms, particularly to human health. The CDC describes how biological hazards can be exacerbated by climate conditions. Some examples of biological hazards include:
According to the CDC, some occupations most at risk to biological hazards include healthcare workers, first responders, construction workers, outdoor workers, and post-disaster remediation workers. These hazards can be detrimental to worker health. For example, indoor workers might be exposed to mold or fungi in the building they work in. In addition, there are various health effects that are associated with biological hazards, such as food and water borne diseases, vector-borne diseases, or allergies and asthma caused by mold or pollen.
Depending on the specific biological hazard, there are direct and indirect state and federal laws addressing hazards such as blood-borne pathogens, insects, and other threats to safety. Some of the following regulations or laws include:
- OSHA Blood Borne Pathogens Standard (BBP, 29 CFR 1910.1030)
- OSHA Personal Protective Equipment Standard (PPE, 29 CFR 1910)
- OSHA Safety Training and Education Standard (1926.21(b)(4))
- EPA Worker Protection Standard
- Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act
- Occupational Safety and Health Act
Several states have laws around pesticide safety. There are varying provisions depending on the state law. These states include: Florida, California, Washington, Oregon, New York, Louisiana, and Virginia. Visit our page on pesticide safety to learn more about these state federal laws.
Air pollution is one hazard among several discussed on this page that can contribute to respiratory diseases, heart disease, stroke, and allergic disorders. Ground level ozone and particulate pollution are known to be significantly impactful on respiratory health. There are many contributors to air pollution. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), household combustion devices, motor vehicles, industrial facilities, and forest fires are major contributors to air pollution.
While many might think that air quality is a concern primarily for outdoor workers, it is also a major concern for indoor workers. It’s important to be aware of the effects of indoor air quality. Tight building syndrome is one example of this impact on workers. Tight building syndrome can result from poor ventilation and poorly maintained air conditioning systems. As a result, workers in these buildings may experience mucous membrane irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; headache; unusual tiredness or fatigue; and, less frequently, dry or itchy skin.
Enacted in 1955, and then amended in 1970, 1977, and 1990, the Clean Air Act aims to protect human health and the environment from harmful air quality conditions, such as pollution. Among its statutes, here are some major ones:
- Requires EPA to set health-based standards for ambient air quality
- Sets deadlines for the achievement of those standards by state and local governments
- Requires EPA to set national emission standards for large or ubiquitous sources of air pollution, including motor vehicles, power plants, and other industrial sources
- Mandates emission controls for sources of 187 hazardous air pollutants
The Clean Air Act also has provisions to protect workers who speak out about dangerous conditions in their workplace when employers retaliate. Specifically, this involves “alleged violations of air emissions from area, stationary, and mobile sources that affect public health and the environment.” For more information on whistleblowing and protected activity, visit our page Whistleblowing and Retaliation.
There are some states that address outdoor air quality and pollution from, for example, wildfire smoke. One state that does so is Oregon OSHA. Oregon states that employers have the responsibility to keep workers safe from air pollution, which includes provisions like closing outdoor activity when the air quality reaches an unhealthy level according to the Air Quality Index (AIQ). Employers should be aware of AIQ and not have work during unhealthy levels. Another example of how employers could fulfill this responsibility is to provide the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and training when working in these conditions. See the Environmental Law Institute’s website for more information on state air quality laws.
Indoor climate is of significant concern, especially as temperatures rise due to climate change. The CDC emphasizes that the rise in temperature will increase the demand for climate control buildings. Addressing indoor temperature is an area of concern for many workers. As employers, it’s important to understand how unsafe temperatures can impact worker health and safety. Cold and heat stress are more common in indoor workplaces than people might think. Workers can get hypothermia, frostbite, among other illnesses described further here. Heat is also another area that can affect indoor workers, such as warehouses, electrical utilities, kitchens, or manufacturing facilities. Heat related illnesses can include heat stress, cramping, rash, or heat stroke.
On the other hand, an atmospheric environment involves air quality, pollution, and volume of fresh air. Workers are at risk of building-related illnesses, like tight or sick building syndrome, health effects from water damage, or poor ventilation which are linked to indoor air quality (IAQ). (IAQ) generally refers to the quality of the air in buildings, like addressing the amount of pollutants in the air.
There are many indoor air quality pollutants that are of concern for workers. Some of these pollutants may include:
- Environmental Tobacco Smoke
- Combustion Pollutants
- Mold and Bacteria
According to Communication Workers of America (CWA) other indoor air pollution problems are when air is circulated too fast within the workplace, toxic substances are present at work, or outside polluted air enters the environment. The CWA provides these suggestions for solutions to poor indoor air quality. Visit this page to read more about their suggestions.
- Identify worker health symptoms
- Identify the contaminant source of symptoms
- Document the condition of the ventilation system
For thermal conditions, employers should be aware of the indoor temperature and be open to hearing workers’ concerns around it. While there are no regulations for indoor temperature, OSHA recommends employers to maintain indoor temperature between 68 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, employers should consider providing additional equipment or gear to keep workers safe. For heat, the CDC provides recommendations for indoor environments.
As a result of the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere, the strength and frequency of extreme weather events (like floods, storms, wildfires, lighting) are increasing. This can cause risk for occupational injuries especially among the following occupations: rescue, clean up, and disaster relief.
Physical and mental health effects are especially pervasive among those who work in extreme weather conditions. Frontline workers are working in especially dangerous conditions, and with extreme weather it compounds the health and safety concerns.
There are a few laws and regulations which protect workers in extreme weather events. Being aware of these laws and regulations can help you keep yourself and coworkers safe, and as an employer, keep your workers safe. Because there are state level OSHA programs, some of which have additional standards from the federal OSHA program, it is important that you know what your state’s plan’s standards are. For example, while federal OSHA does not have a standard on employers paying for PPE, states such as California, Minnesota, and Puerto Rico do.
Visit our page on page, Workplace Health and Safety – State Laws and Workplace Health and Safety Protections to learn more.
There are a wide number of resources available for employers published by federal and state agencies. Here are some resources published:
- Safety Information for Response and Cleanup Workers – OSHA
- Natural Disasters, Severe Weather, and COVID-19 – CDC
- Keeping Workers Safe During Flood Cleanup – OSHA
- How to Protect Workers in Flooded Areas – Teamsters
- Protecting Workers After Wildfires – Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley
Mental health is already a concern for workers in many of the industries mentioned. However, the effects of climate change exacerbate these concerns, such as the cognitive response after a severe weather event. According to the CDC, these responses can be long or short term. Climate disasters are traumatic and the conditions that workers face while on the front line of these hazards must be addressed. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, the CDC suggests workers seek immediate medical attention.
Physical symptoms of stress include but are not limited to:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe pain
- Symptoms of shock
Cognitive symptoms of stress include but are not limited to:
- Heightened or lowered alertness
- Poor concentration
- Poor problem solving
Emotional symptoms of stress include but are not limited to:
Those working in renewable energy, also known as ‘green jobs’, also face occupational hazards. Green jobs are generally described as careers that play a role in improving the environment while doing the same for the economy. Workers in this industry have a variety of duties. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, careers in this sector may include solar, biofuels, geothermal energy, recycling, green construction, and more. For example, someone who is in this industry may be involved in constructing a wind farm. Sources indicate that those in green jobs face hazards such as:
- Increased exposure to heat, cold, and solar radiation
- Chemical hazards
- Confined spaces
Your employer has a responsibility to keep you and your coworkers safe. This article by Working America emphasizes how temperature can impact worker productivity, what you should do if you are experiencing extreme temperature in your workplace. The article emphasizes a few points. They suggest that you familiarize yourself with the symptoms associated with heat and cold stress and consider joining with your coworkers to bring these concerns to your boss. However, if your boss is not acknowledging the issue, you might consider filing an OSHA complaint.
According to this federal law, employers must ensure your workplace is free of hazards that jeopardize your health and safety. In addition, you have the right to speak up about working conditions without retaliation. However, while it is illegal for employers to retaliate (e.g. fire, demote, or transfer) against an employee using their rights under the OSH Act, employer retaliation is still common and that many workers face. If you are injured and are seeking workers compensation for an injury relating to the extreme weather conditions you are in, you might have questions on how to navigate workers compensation retaliation. Visit our page Retaliation: Workers Compensation for more information.
You deserve to go to work without feeling like your health and safety is at risk. If you were injured at work and are seeking compensation, you may consider filing a workers compensation claim. Our page What to Do if You Are Injured at Work will guide you through the process in filing a claim and important points to consider.