Occupational Safety and Health and Climate
Variations in temperature, precipitation (such as rain and snow), wind, or other types of weather have the potential to affect worker health and safety. Research related to the occupational impacts of climate (including disaster research) can be used for risk management programs and to develop policies. Employers, safety and health professionals, government agencies, and others can all play a role in protecting workers from climate-related hazards.
Indoor and outdoor workers may be disproportionately affected by climate variations, more so than the general population. For example, emergency responders, healthcare workers, firefighters, utility workers, farmers, manufacturing workers, and transportation workers all experience the effects of climate at work. Climate-related impacts may make existing health and safety issues worse and lead to new hazards. Workers may also be exposed to climate-related hazards that the general public can choose to avoid. For example, most people might choose to stay indoors during a heat wave, but some workers must be outside to do their job. Additionally, climate-related hazards may affect some workers both at work and at home. This is especially true for migrant workers, day laborers, and other workers who may have low quality housing or other social and economic constraints.
Climate-related Occupational Hazards and Exposures
Many workers spend their entire work shift in hot environments, which can be indoors or outdoors. These environments may become hotter because of higher temperatures, more frequent extreme heat events (such as heat waves), and shifting and expanding hot seasons. For many workers, exposure to heat and humidity at work may be more hazardous than community exposure. This is because workers generally have less control of exposures in their work activities.
Heat stress is a major hazard for many workplaces, such as those in agriculture, construction, and outdoor services (for example, landscaping and tree trimming). Workers in these sectors often work outdoors through the hottest months. They may continue working jobs requiring intense physical activity even during heat waves and other extreme heat events.
Research has linked air pollution to acute health effects (such as short-term coughing and eye irritation) and chronic (long-term) health effects (such as heart disease, respiratory diseases, and allergic disorders). Studies have shown air pollutants like ground level ozone and particle pollution affect respiratory health.
Workplace exposure to environmental air pollution varies depending on:
• Worksite location
• Weather conditions
• Outdoor air quality
• Increased frequency of wildland fires
Airnow.gov has current and forecasted air quality index information by zip code. It also has air quality action day alerts for your location.
Additional information is available on EPA Particulate Matter Pollution.
Ultraviolet (UV) rays are a part of sunlight that is an invisible form of radiation. Complex interactions among greenhouse gases, climate, and atmospheric conditions have increased UV radiation in recent years. Over-exposure to UV radiation can result in skin cancer, eye damage, and immune suppression.
Increasing extreme weather events or natural disasters include floods, landslides, storms, lightning, droughts, and wildfires. These events contribute to occupational deaths, injuries, diseases, and stress. Workers involved in rescue, cleanup, and restoration are exposed to hazardous conditions both during and after extreme weather events.
Climate-impacted conditions such as temperature and rainfall affect a variety of organisms. Their populations may grow, and their geographic location may change by shifting or expanding.
Affected organisms include:
- Vectors (such as fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes, which spread pathogens that cause illness)
- Pathogens (such as bacteria and viruses)
- Hosts (humans or other animals that become infected)
- Allergens (such as pollen and mold)
- Poisonous plants
- Venomous species
Health impacts include:
- Vector-borne disease such as those spread by ticks and mosquitoes
- Food-borne and water-borne diseases
- Asthma and allergies triggered by pollen
- Mold-related asthma
- Skin and lung irritation from poisonous plants
- Bites from venomous snakes
Pesticides are often used to try to control biological hazards. Pesticides are chemicals used to destroy or control weeds (herbicides), insect pests (insecticides), rodent pests (rodenticides), or fungi (fungicides). However, exposure to pesticides may have a variety of adverse health effects for workers. Outdoor workers, emergency responders, post-disaster remediation and construction workers, and healthcare workers are most at risk.
In response to concerns about our climate and environment, the economy has shifted. Many businesses are moving towards energy efficiency, environmentally friendly practices, and green jobs. Some industries will decline, leading to job insecurity. At the same time, new industries will emerge, like those in solar, wind, biodiesel, nuclear, recycling, and green jobs. Worker safety and health concerns in these emerging industries must be identified and addressed.
Higher temperatures increase the need for climate-controlled buildings. As more workers spend their time inside climate-controlled buildings, building-related illnesses (such as, tight building syndrome or sick building syndrome) may occur. These illnesses are sometimes related to indoor air quality, especially in buildings with air conditioning or water damage. Energy-efficient “tight” buildings with microbial-contaminated humidifiers or air handlers that use biocides are also at risk for indoor air quality concerns. Tight buildings may also lead to radon buildup in work areas such as smaller rooms, storage areas, or offices.
Additional Considerations for Occupational Safety and Health Impacts of Climate
Mental Health Effects
Climate-related difficulties or losses may increase mental health disorders among workers. For example, first responders participating in rescue and cleanup efforts after extreme weather events may be more likely to experience new or worsened post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
Climate-related impacts (such as extreme temperatures) may decrease workers’ productivity. Employers may find it more challenging to hire and retain workers. For example, heat stress may lead to reduced productivity of outdoor workers, as they may tire more quickly in hotter temperatures, and need additional breaks to cool down and rehydrate. Additionally, medical costs of workers’ compensation claims may increase. Workers may need more days away from work after heat-related injuries and illnesses.
Occupational Health Equity
Climate-related impacts will affect occupational health equity. Climate will increasingly present work-related hazards with greater impact on workers who are already at higher risk for injury, illness, and fatality. For example, millions of outdoor workers in the United States are at increased risk because they are seasonally exposed to hazards like extreme heat. Many outdoor workers are migrant or immigrant workers, and a combination of factors makes them more susceptible to heat and other hazards, such as a lack of knowledge and safety training, poverty, seasonality of the work, extreme work conditions, cultural differences, and language barriers. Additionally, they may be working for small businesses which often face a lack of resources for safety and health practices, greater time demands on managers, and fewer employees to engage in activities such as safety committees.
To Learn More
Updated assessment of occupational safety and health hazards of climate change (2023)
This article builds on previous papers and updates a framework for how climate change could affect worker safety and health, using literature published from 2014-2021. It also addresses crosscutting issues including mental health implications, economic burden, and equity issues.
Advancing the framework for considering the effects of climate change on worker safety and health (2016)
This article provides an update on a framework for how climate change could affect worker safety and health, using literature published from 2009-2014. It also identifies key priorities for action in research, surveillance, risk assessment, risk management, and policy development.
Climate change and occupational safety and health: establishing a preliminary framework (2009)
This article develops a framework based on a review of the published scientific literature from 1988–2008. The framework identifies how climate change could affect the workplace and occupational injury, illness, and death. It describes seven categories of climate-related hazards that affect workers.
CDC Climate and Health Program
CDC’s Climate and Health Program supports state, tribal, local, and territorial public health agencies as they prepare for the health impacts of a changing climate.
US Global Change Research Program
A federal program that coordinates federal research and investments in understanding the forces shaping the global environment, both human and natural, and their impacts on society. USGCRP facilitates collaboration and cooperation across its 13 federal member agencies.
American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) Technical Framework: Climate Change Adaptation for the OEHS Professional
This Body of Knowledge framework establishes an educational foundation for occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) professionals responsible for the health and safety of working populations affected by the adverse effects of climate change.