Environmental Disease

: 2018  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 77--79

Climate change and occupational health of outdoor workers: An urgent call to action for European policymakers

Francesco Chirico1, Giuseppe Taino2,  
1 State Police Health Service Department, Ministry of Interior; Department of Life Sciences and Public Health, Università Cattolica Del Sacro Cuore, Rome, Italy
2 Hospital Occupational Medicine Unit (UOOML), ICS Maugeri Spa SB, Pavia, Italy

Correspondence Address:
Francesco Chirico
Via Umberto Cagni, 21 20162 Milano

How to cite this article:
Chirico F, Taino G. Climate change and occupational health of outdoor workers: An urgent call to action for European policymakers.Environ Dis 2018;3:77-79

How to cite this URL:
Chirico F, Taino G. Climate change and occupational health of outdoor workers: An urgent call to action for European policymakers. Environ Dis [serial online] 2018 [cited 2022 May 22 ];3:77-79
Available from: http://www.environmentmed.org/text.asp?2018/3/4/77/250875

Full Text

Currently, literature on the relationship between global climate change and occupational health and safety has not been very prolific. A recent review (2016), updating a past 2009 review on this topic, has identified seven categories of climate-related occupational hazards: (a) increased ambient temperature, (b) air pollution, (c) ultraviolet (UV) exposure, (d) extreme weather, (e) vector-borne diseases and expanded habitats, (f) industrial transitions and emerging industries, and (g) changes in the built environment.[1] Other potential hazards are exposure to wildfires and workplace violence.[2] Across the world, climate change led to higher temperatures and occupational heat-stress levels in both indoor and outdoor workers.[3],[4] However, outdoor workers' health and productivity in warmer climate are at higher risk because environmental conditions affect health and work productivity for especially those activities that require physical work.[3]

Changes in the outdoor work environment have been resulting in heat stress, air pollution, and UV exposure particularly among outdoor workers. Health consequences range from dehydration, injuries, and heat fatigue to a higher burden of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, cataract, skin and eye cancer, and weakening of the immune system. Furthermore, extreme weather events affect workers involved in emergency, rescue, and cleanup efforts delivered in high-risk situations due to more frequent floods, landslides, storms, droughts, and wildfires.[5]

A narrative review focusing on northern industrialized countries with a temperate climate showed the presence of heat waves/increased temperatures, air pollutants, UV radiation, extreme weather events, and vector-borne/zoonotic disease, as the most important occupational hazards to outdoor workers.[6] Therefore, there is a wide range of exposures requiring focused policies to prevent harmful exposures or hazardous outcomes in all regions of the earth. Indeed, outdoor workers who are particularly at risk represent a very common category because they are not limited to manual employers at mobile constructions sites, but they include firefighters, farmers, gardeners, factory workers, engineers, machine operators, roofers, police officers, and others.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, during 1992–2006, 423 workers died as a consequence of the environmental heat in the United States, and many of them worked outdoor.[7]

The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES)[8] showed that changes to the climate and environment represent a still poorly documented risk to human health for both the general population and the workers and thus proposing a new classification of climate change-related occupational risks derived from three major groups: (1) increase in temperature, (2) alteration of the biological and chemical environment, and (3) change in the frequency and intensity of certain climate hazards.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), outdoor workers are a working group exposed to specific occupational hazards as follows: (a) physical hazards (extreme heat and cold, noise, and sun exposure); (b) biological hazards (vector-borne diseases, venomous wildlife and insects, and poisonous plants); (c) others hazards such as pesticides or other chemical hazards and traumatic injury hazards; or (d) other safety and health hazards which depend on specific job and tasks, on geographic region and season, and by duration of time workers spend outside.[9]

Therefore, climate change-related hazards include old and new risk factors. These factors need to be carefully considered by occupational health stakeholders because they may negatively impact outdoor workers' health and safety.[10],[11],[12] The WHO Global Plan of Action on Workers' Health 2008–2017 was endorsed by the 60th World Health Assembly, to enhance the capacity of countries to better protect the health of workers worldwide. Moreover, the 61st and 62nd World Health Assemblies approved a resolution and a work plan on climate change and health for improving health protection at the workplace, and supporting a green economy in order to help address the challenges of climate change and achieve environmental sustainability.[5] However, effective solutions to address climate change-related occupational hazards can be taken by occupational stakeholders only based on health and safety legislation because the risk assessment process and health surveillance are mandatory when required by law.

In Europe, the OSH Framework Directive (Directive 89/391 EEC) adopted in 1989 obliges all employers to take appropriate measures for protecting health and safety of workers, after that risk assessment process has identified all the potential hazards associated with their employment. In addition to the Framework Directive, a series of individual directives for addressing specific aspects of health and safety at work were adopted over the years. They address specific tasks (e.g., display screen equipment), specific hazards at work (e.g., exposure to physical agents or dangerous substances), specific workplaces and sectors (e.g., use of personal protective equipment), specific groups of workers (e.g., pregnant women), and certain work-related aspects (e.g., work organization).[13] By analyzing the EU-OSHA website,[13] the European directives that may applied by employers to protect outdoor employees from climate change-related risks are as follows: (1) directives on exposure to chemical agents and chemical safety such as (a) Directive 2004/37/EC (carcinogens or mutagens at work) as last amended by Directive (European Union [EU]) 2017/2398 and (b) Directive 98/24/EC (risks related to chemical agents at work); (2) directives on exposure to physical hazards such as (a) Directive 2003/10/EC (noise) and (b) Directive 2000/14/EC (noise and equipment for use outdoors); (3) directive on exposure to biological agents (Directive 2000/54/EC on biological agents at work); and (4) directives on sector-specific and worker-related provisions such as (a) Directive 92/57/EEC (temporary or mobile construction sites).

Therefore, it is clear that current European OSH directives to address all the above climate change-related risks for workers are insufficient; furthermore, in consideration of the principles of European OHS legislation requiring a global evaluation of occupational hazards by the employers, including the new and emerging risk factors, it is urgently needed that EU set ups a new specific directive on this topic. Another solution is that EU enacts a European Regulation (ER), a binding legislative act to be applied in its entirety across the EU, focusing on outdoor workers at risk due to climate change. An ER may be effective to tackle the challenges posed by these new climate change-related risk factors. The OSH Framework Directive guarantees minimum safety and health requirements throughout Europe, while member states are allowed to maintain or establish more stringent measures; thus, all the European policymakers responsible for implementing OHS European directives have to consider either this new category of hazards or this group of workers at risk in their respective national laws.

In recent years, climate change is a global emergency that can have negative consequences for occupational health and safety, affecting health, and productivity of indoor and especially outdoor workers.

Considering the potential consequences derived by climate change in occupational setting is urgent for saving lives and health of outdoor workers and well-being of indoor workers; thus, prevention and economic investments by policymakers are needed because they may give benefits for all occupational setting. Indeed, climate change impacts on work intensity and duration, which in turn affects productivity, influencing all economic sectors,[14] even those previously thought to be insensitive to climate.


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