Published: 28/04/2024

Guest Editorial: Rory O’Neill, ITUC OHS Advisor

International Workers Memorial Day 2024: The climate crisis is putting workers at potentially deadly risk

A bad climate

Hot, cold, wet and wild. The weather is getting more unpredictable and more extreme. Hazards looks at the new risks emerging as a result of the climate crisis which has seen emergency preparedness become an essential part of a workplace safety policy.

It is much more than a spell of unsettled weather.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) December 2023 statement noted the year had witnessed “an alarming surge in climate-related disasters, including wildfires, heatwaves and droughts, leading to the displacement of populations, agricultural losses and heightened air pollution.”

And while injuries, stress and strains might be the usual bread and butter issues for trade union safety reps, the climate crisis dictates a new issue is worming its way onto the safety committee agenda – emergency preparedness.

In response to the accelerating crisis, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) declared the theme for International Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April 2024 will be ‘Climate risks for workers.’

It says extreme weather and changing weather patterns are affecting job security and health for workers.

Heat-related deaths and diseases in workers in agriculture, construction and other outdoor jobs have soared, the global union body adds. But indoor workers, particularly those working in hot process like bakeries, are also at serious risk.

As the temperature increases, so does the rate of workplace injuries.

ILO estimates that worldwide in 2020 there were 22.85 million occupational injuries, 18,967 deaths and 2.09 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYS) lost to occupational injuries attributable to workplace heat exposure.

According to a May 2023 briefing from the US thinktank Public Citizen, for every 1°C increase above ambient temperature there is a 1 per cent increase in injuries, with the effect even more marked at higher temperatures.

It also affects the bottom line.

Working on a warmer planet: The effect of heat stress on productivity and decent work,’ a 2019 report from the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), concludes that if nothing changes, the problem could reduce global GDP by US$2.4 billion in 2030.

It makes you sick

Heat-related illnesses are a major concern at work. A 2024 ILO global analysis of climate models, global temperature projections, labour force data and occupational health information calculated at least 2.41 billion full-time workers were exposed to workplace heat in 2020.

And for many across a diverse range of sectors, these exposures can be seriously bad for their health.

Heat-related illnesses range in severity from mild heat rash and swelling, worsening to heat stress and heat exhaustion, and to more severe and potentially fatal illnesses such as rhabdomyolysis (muscle damage), acute kidney injury, heat stroke and heat-stress induced cardiac arrest. Workers with pre-existing health conditions, like diabetes, lung or heart disease, can be particularly at risk (Hazards 162).

A recently recognised condition, chronic kidney disease of unknown aetiology (CKDu), has been observed in banana workers and others conducting heavy manual labour in hot temperatures, killing thousands each year.

A 2016 paper in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology suggested CKDu could represent one of the first climate change-induced epidemics.

Good climate for bad infections

Heat isn’t the only threat.

“The climate crisis, urbanisation and changing land use are impacting occupational health and safety and have led to biological hazards posing new risks or risks in new places,” a December 2023 ITUC briefing on biological hazards notes.

ILO’s September 2023 policy brief, ‘Occupational safety and health in a just transition,’ warns “risks from vector-borne diseases, such as malaria or dengue fever, will increase with warming temperatures, including potential shifts in geographic range of these vectors as a result of climate change. This development affects all workers, especially outdoor workers who are at higher risk of contracting vector-borne diseases, from vectors such as mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. Moreover, infectious diseases may also affect workers via waterborne and foodborne pathogens, such as Salmonella spp. when they have direct contact with contaminated water or food.”

Extreme weather

It is not just heat. Storms, hurricanes, floods, snow blizzards, lightning, tornadoes, wildfires and high winds are all part of the climate change package.

Wildfires – which have become much more frequent as a consequence of climate change – can be deadly, with emergency workers at particular risk. It is not just the heat and flames – the smoke is a real killer.

The US government’s safety research agency NIOSH says common hazards faced by firefighters working on the fire line “can include burnovers/entrapments, heat-related illnesses and injuries, smoke inhalation, vehicle-related injuries (including aircraft), slips, trips, and falls, and others. In addition, due to prolonged intense physical exertion,” as well as being “at risk for sudden cardiac deaths and rhabdomyolsis.”

Floods can make transport hazardous for all workers and come with an increased risk of infections. Depending where in the world you are, that could be anything from colds to cholera. Agricultural workers could be left with a dangerous job or no job at all.

Floods can create a risk from diseases associated with backflow of sewage, conditions like Weil’s disease linked to rodents and from mould exposures. Risks from debris like fallen trees or water ingress compromising electrical or fire safety can make work dangerous or impossible.

Cold weather is the flip side of the extreme temperature hazards at work. When the temperature dips below -10°C there is a risk of hypothermia or frostbite if outside for long periods without adequate protection. Wind chill can greatly heighten the risks. Other cold related conditions affecting outdoor workers include trench foot and chilblains.

Slips, falls and vehicle accidents can increase as a result of snow, ice and frost. Snow can obscure dangers, including fall hazards or fragile roof panels.

Pollution problem

Air pollution and smog events can create acute and long-term health risks. A 2023 paper in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene noted that the increasing impact of climate change on levels of air pollutants will disproportionately impact outdoor workers.

The 2021 joint WHO/ILO global estimates of the occupational disease burden suggest more than 770,000 deaths a year can be attributed to occupational exposure to air pollutants, but ILO adds the real magnitude of the health impacts from workplace air pollution is likely to be much higher.

ILO notes pollution of air at the workplace, either indoors or during work outdoors, can cause a range of acute and chronic health impacts, including cancer, stroke, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and other health issues.

Essential workers – those providing our health care, transport, food and other life-and society-sustaining services – may be at heightened risks as they will usually be required to work but may not be considered high risk under normal circumstances, so may not have the necessary training, protective clothing or equipment.

Just stop it

With the climate crisis accelerating, workers will increasingly face natural dangers in the workplace, a report from the US National Employment Law Project (NELP) warned. It argues workers will increasingly need to exercise their right to refuse dangerous work – and need additional new rights on top.

NELP’s report, ‘The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work in an Era of Climate Change,’ says workers “must have a real right to refuse dangerous work in the face of natural disasters, and it must be supported with job-protected rights to paid leave, anti-retaliation provisions with meaningful penalties for noncompliance, and expansive unemployment insurance benefits.”

The ILO occupational safety and health convention, Convention 155 – the main global safety law – says any workers who believe their work presents “an imminent and serious danger” to life can stop work and “shall be protected from undue consequences in accordance with national conditions and practice.”

Convention 155 is an ILO ‘fundamental’ convention, so should be respected and promoted across all ILO’s 187 member states, even in countries that have not ratified it.

APRIL 28: For more information on International Workers’ Memorial Day, check out the Hazards/ITUC events and resources webpages:

APRIL 28: For more information on International Workers’ Memorial Day, check out the Hazards/ITUC events and resources webpages: