Trade & Policy

ILO Report Highlights The Rising Impact Of Climate Change On Worker Health And Safety

Climate change is already having serious impacts on the safety and health of workers in all regions of the world. Workers are among those most exposed to climate change hazards yet frequently have no choice but to continue working, even if conditions are dangerous. Global occupational safety and health (OSH) protections have struggled to keep up with the evolving risks from climate change, resulting in worker mortality and morbidity.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has adopted more than 40 standards specifically related to OSH, which provide policy solutions for dealing with the effects of climate change on communities, workers and enterprises.

In June 2023, the International Labour Conference urged constituents to implement OSH measures for all workers impacted by climate-related risks and extreme weather events and asked the ILO to consider convening a tripartite meeting on OSH in extreme weather events and changing weather patterns.

This report presents critical evidence related to six key impacts of climate change on OSH, which were chosen for their severity and the magnitude of their effects on workers: excessive heat, solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation, extreme weather events, workplace air pollution, vector-borne diseases and agrochemicals.

Key takeaways from the report:

§  Billions of workers are exposed to hazards exacerbated by climate change.

§  Workers across different sectors are exposed to the hazards but some workers, such as agricultural workers and other outdoor workers carrying out heavy labour in hot climates, may be particularly at risk.

§  Strong evidence demonstrates that numerous health conditions in workers have been linked to climate change, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses, kidney dysfunction and mental health conditions, among many others.

§  Every year, an estimated 22.85 million occupational injuries, 18,970 deaths and 2.09 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) are attributable to excessive heat alone. Thousands more die from pesticide poisoning (>300,000), workplace air pollution (>860,000), solar UV radiation (>18,960 due to non-melanoma skin cancer alone) and parasitic and vector-borne diseases (>15,170) (Jørs et al. 2018; ILO 2021a; Pega et al. 2023).

§  Many countries have implemented new laws to specifically address excessive heat in the working environment. These primarily include maximum temperature limits and guidelines for adaptive measures at the workplace level. For other climate change impacts, protections for workers are mainly integrated into existing OSH or environmental regulations.

§  The content of legislation varies considerably between countries, but may include medical surveillance, occupational disease lists, occupational exposure limits (OELs), training and information, risk assessment and workplace preventive measures.

§  As climate change hazards evolve and intensify, it will be necessary to re-evaluate existing legislation or create new regulations and guidance. Some worker populations may be especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change and could therefore need extra protections.

§  Social dialogue between governments and social partners is essential for ensuring policies are practical and effective at the workplace level.

§  OSH policies and programmes should be coordinated among government departments to ensure policy coherence. For example, it may be beneficial to integrate OSH initiatives into public health campaigns.

§  In addition to adapting to the climate change impacts outlined in this report, workplaces can contribute to climate mitigation strategies using measures such as improving energy efficiency.

§  The scientific evidence base regarding climate change and OSH is limited in many critical areas. Further research is needed to guide policymaking and other responses. Knowledge transfer is also necessary to educate stakeholders.

§  Rapid shifts to green and sustainable technologies may create new OSH challenges, especially if appropriate OSH protections have not been implemented. For example, solar panels, compact fluorescent lamps and lithium-ion batteries contain toxic chemicals which are hazardous to worker health.

Excessive Heat

Every year, at least 2.41 billion workers exposed to excessive heat, 22.85 million suffer occupational injuries; 18,970 work-related deaths; 2.09 million DALYs attributable to excessive heat.

Chronic kidney disease of unknown aetiology (CKDu) in tropical countries

Epidemics of chronic kidney disease of unknown aetiology (CKDu) are affecting large numbers of workers conducting heavy manual labour in hot temperatures. CKDu has emerged in hot, rural regions of the Americas,

Africa, the Middle East and India, where abnormally high numbers of agricultural workers have begun dying from irreversible kidney failure. It has been estimated that over 20,000 have died of this disease within a decade in Central America alone, with many more sick or injured and unable to work.

Some examples of legislation regarding temperatures in the workplace

India: The The WetBulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) should not exceed 30°C in factory workrooms (Factories Act No. 63, 1948).

Vietnam: Indoor workplace temperatures should not exceed 34°C, 32°C and 30°C for light, medium and heavy work respectively (Decision No. 3733/2002/QD-BYT).

China: Outdoor work must cease when air temperature exceeds 40°C (Administrative Measures on Heatstroke Prevention (AMPH2012)).

Brazil: Work must be stopped in cases where the WBGT rises above 29.4°C for low intensity work, 27.3°C for moderate intensity work, 26.0°C for high intensity work, and 24.7°C for very high intensity work (Regulatory Standard No. 15 (Annex 3)).

Ultraviolet Radiation

§  1.6 billion workers exposed annually to solar UV radiations (Pega et al. 2023).

§  Every year, over 18,960 work-related deaths due to non-melanoma skin cancer alone (Pega et al. 2023)

Work-related skin cancer as an occupational disease

Few countries officially recognise work related skin cancer as an occupational disease and even in those countries that do, the number of reported cases is often limited. For example, in Denmark, only 36 cases of skin cancer have been recognised since its inclusion in the list of occupational diseases in 2000 and in Italy, on average, only 34 cases were reported annually between 2002 and 2017 (John et al. 2021). However, in Germany, when some forms of work-related skin cancer were officially included in the list of occupational diseases in 2015, within the first 12 months of official recognition, more than 7700 cases were notified. By 2018, this figure had risen to 9905 cases.

Extreme Weather Events

Work-related health impact: 2.06 million deaths due to weather, climate and water hazards (not just occupational exposures) from 1970 to 2019 (WMO 2021).

Selected extreme weather events from 2023

§  Record-breaking heat across Asia – Many parts of Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Lao People’s Democratic Republic saw record-high temperatures in April. Temperatures were as high as 45.4°C in Tak, Thailand. VietnNam recorded its highest temperature ever at 44.1°C in Thanh Hoa province, south of Hanoi, on 6 May. China’s summer saw scorching temperatures, reaching a national record high of 52.2°C in Sanbao. China’s capital, Beijing, suffered through 27 consecutive days of temperatures above 35°C, leading to a temporary ban on outdoor work.

§  A severe sandstorm in Beijing, China – The sandstorm engulfed the capital with particles with a particulate matter density of PM10, so tiny that they could travel to the lungs. The particles reached a peak concentration of 1,667 μg/m3, which far exceeds the daily average guideline of 45 μg/m3 set by the WHO. People were urged to stay indoors, and the city’s parks operations were suspended.

Some policies, laws and other initiatives at the national level

§  In Costa Rica, workers should be protected against inclement weather in general, and should be provided with appropriate equipment.

§  Article 215 of the Egyptian Labour Code (No.12 of 2003) states that employers should carry out an analysis of the risk of natural disasters and prepare an emergency plan for the protection of workplaces and workers in the event of such a disaster. Workers should receive training on the plan and practical drills should be conducted to ascertain its efficacy.

§  In Jordan, regulations state that employers must take the necessary precautions to preserve the safety and health of workers in exceptional weather conditions if the situation requires workers to continue working. Moreover, in exceptional weather conditions, the hours during which work is prohibited may be determined by a ministerial decision.

§  The Philippines’ Occupational Safety and Health Standards (as amended, 1989) specify that roofs shall be of sufficient strength to withstand normal load, typhoons and strong winds (art. 1061). In addition, the Standards state that “no work shall be started or continued in timbered areas during periods of high winds, extremely heavy fogs and other hazardous weather conditions” (art. 1423).

Workplace Air Pollution

§  Increased risk of exposure to air pollution for the 1.6 billion outdoor workers

§  Every year, 860,000 work-related deaths due to air pollution (outdoor workers only) (ILO 2021a)- .

Some policies, laws and other initiatives at the national level

§  In Fiji, employers “shall ensure an adequate supply of clean air […] and if atmospheric contaminants or impurities are created or occur at any workplace, exposure to those particles or dust is prevented or otherwise controlled”.

§  Laws in Cameroon and Australia contain provisions to address the risk of pollution from dust, toxic or caustic fumes, and the appropriate actions to prevent these.

Vector Borne Diseases

Every year, over 15,170 work-related deaths attributable to Parasitic and vector diseases.

How climate change has increased the risk of vector-borne diseases for workers

§  In China, schistosomiasis, a serious risk for farmworkers, has recently re-emerged in areas where it was previously eradicated, thought to be associated with the spread of suitable habitats for the intermediate host snail Oncomelania hupensis in response to regional warming.

§  West Nile and Zika viruses, known vector-borne hazards to outdoor workers, may increase because of climate change.

§  In Japan, the distribution of Aedes albopictus (the mosquito species that transmits dengue fever) has been advancing northwards over recent decades, thought to be associated with higher autumn mean temperatures that promote larval development and warmer annual mean temperatures that encourage expansion of adult mosquitoes during summer.

§  The incidence of coccidioidomycosis, a fungal disease endemic in the Southwestern United States, has been associated with several outdoor occupations and has increased substantially from 1998 to 2011.

Lyme disease in the United States

Lyme disease is a bacterial illness transmitted by ticks that can cause fever, fatigue, joint pain, and skin rash, as well as more serious joint and nervous system complications. Outdoor workers in Lyme disease-endemic regions are at particular risk of contracting the disease, for example those employed in forestry or farming. The incidence of Lyme disease in the United States has nearly doubled since 1991, from 3.74 reported cases per 100,000 people to 7.21 reported cases per 100,000 people in 2018 (US EPA 2021). Studies show that climate change has contributed to the expanded spread of ticks, increasing the potential risk of Lyme disease, even in areas where ticks were previously unable to survive. Warming temperatures are projected to increase the range of suitable tick habitats, whilst shorter winters could extend the period when ticks are active each year, increasing the time that humans could be exposed.

Policies, laws and other initiatives at the national level

§  In Thailand, a health check-up is required for workers who are exposed to specific hazards or risk factors related to work including toxic microbes which may be a virus, bacteria, fungus or other biological organism.

§  India’s Kerala State Action Plan for Climate Change 2023 - 2030 covers a health adaptation plan for vector-borne diseases. Incidence of dengue, malaria, Japanese encephalitis and scrub typhus have all risen in the state, with a link to climate change highlighted in the action plan.


-          Increased risk of exposure to agrochemicals for a significant number of the 873 million workers employed in agriculture.

-          Over 300,00 deaths annually due to pesticide poisoning.

Adaptation practices in pesticide use by smallholder cotton farmers in Zimbabwe due to perceived climate change-related increases in pest populations

A study of Zimbabwean smallholder cotton farmers in Rushinga District examined adaptive practices adopted in response to perceived climate change impacts. The study found that factors such as perception of shorter growing seasons resulted in adaptive pest management practices, for example, increased pesticide spraying frequencies. In response to shorter seasons, farmers

reported that they were illegally retaining residue crop (ratoon cotton) due to delayed seasons influenced by changing weather conditions. Reluctance to destroy cotton stalks, necessary to curb bollworm breeding, was attributed to the altered season timing, resulting in heightened pest infestations.

Farmers reported an increased frequency of crop spraying within a season, with some expressing concerns about the diminishing effectiveness of pesticides. Separately, the findings also detected opportunities for decreasing or eliminating pesticide use, as some adaptations to climate change included the reduction of cotton acreage and diversification of crops.

Some policies, laws and other initiatives at the national level

§  In Colombia the law states that the Ministry of Health should establish standards for the protection of health and safety of people from the  dangers arising from the manufacture, storage, transport, trade, use or disposal of pesticides.

§  In India, the Plantations Labour (Amendment) Act (No. 17 of 2010) states that employers shall ensure that every worker in a plantation employed to handle, mix, blend and apply insecticides should be given training on these operations. Furthermore, the Insecticides Act (Act No. 46 of 1968), outlines that measures should be taken to detect and investigate cases of poisoning, and PPE should be provided to workers using pesticides.

§  In Mozambique, Brunei Darussalam and Namibia, poisoning due to pesticides is listed in the national lists of occupational diseases and in Singapore, organophosphate poisoning is specifically mentioned.

The Factories and Machinery Act 1967 [Act 139] (Revised 1974) of Malaysia includes, “Intoxication resulting from handling of insecticides, or herbicides or fungicides as organic phosphate compounds, nitrogenous and chlorinated compounds” as a notifiable occupational disease.

Climate change is already having serious impacts on the safety and health of workers in all regions of the world. Workers are among those most exposed to climate change hazards yet frequently have no choice but to continue working, even if conditions are dangerous.

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