Climate change creates a ‘cocktail’ of serious health risks for 70 percent of the world’s workers, ILO report finds

GENEVA (ILO News) – A “staggering” number of workers, more than 70 percent of the global workforce, are likely to be exposed to health risks related to climate change and existing occupational safety and health (OSH) protections, according to a new report from the International Labor Organization (ILO), they are struggling to keep up with the resulting risks.

The report, Ensuring occupational safety and health in a changing climate, says climate change is already having serious consequences for the safety and health of workers in all parts of the world. The ILO estimates that according to the most recent figures available (2020), more than 2.4 billion workers (out of a global workforce of 3.4 billion) are likely to be exposed to excessive heat at some point during their work. Calculated as a percentage of the global labor force, this share has increased from 65.5 percent to 70.9 percent since 2000.

In addition, the report estimates that 18,970 lives and 2.09 million disability-adjusted life years are lost annually due to the 22.87 million workplace accidents attributable to excessive heat. That’s not even mentioning the 26.2 million people worldwide who suffer from chronic kidney disease linked to heat stress in the workplace (2020 figures).

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However, the impact of climate change on workers goes far beyond exposure to excessive heat, the report said, creating a “cocktail of hazards” that results in a range of dangerous health problems.

The report notes that numerous worker health problems have been linked to climate change, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, kidney disorders and mental health problems. The impact includes:

  • 1.6 billion workers are exposed to UV radiation, with more than 18,960 work-related deaths annually due to non-melanoma skin cancer.
  • 1.6 billion people are likely to be exposed to air pollution in the workplace, causing up to 860,000 work-related deaths among outdoor workers annually.
  • More than 870 million agricultural workers are likely exposed to pesticides, with more than 300,000 deaths attributed to pesticide poisoning each year.
  • 15,000 work-related deaths per year due to exposure to parasitic and vector-borne diseases.

“It is clear that climate change is already posing significant additional health risks to workers,” said Manal Azzi, OSH team leader at the ILO. “It is essential that we heed these warnings. Occupational safety and health considerations must become part of our responses to climate change – both in policy and in action. Working in a safe and healthy environment is recognized as one of the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work. We must deliver on that promise on climate change, just like in every other aspect of the work.”

The report also examines countries’ current responses, including revising or creating new legislation, regulations and guidelines, and improving climate mitigation strategies – such as energy efficiency measures – in work environments.