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Workplace mitigation strategies

Heat-related illnesses and respiratory syndromes in workers are two direct outcomes of climate change that require special mitigation and adaptation strategies, a peak occupational medicine group has warned.

In a guidance statement in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) identifies what it claims are the direct and indirect climate-related health problems workers face, and the responsibilities of occupational and environmental medicine (OEM) providers in treatment and prevention.

Workers are “uniquely susceptible” to the health hazards imposed by environmental changes, and have less control over their environment and activities than the general community, ACOEM says.

“Many working groups are susceptible to both direct and indirect health impacts of climate because of their job type (eg. outdoor workers, labourers, athletes, wildland firefighters) or their existing, underlying health risks (eg. respiratory illness, heart disease, pregnancy),” it says.

Workplace mitigation strategies Lawyers

The statement calls on OEM providers to be on the “forefront” of these emerging health issues, and “recognise, respond to, and mitigate climate change-related health effects in workers”.

It says the direct health effects of climate change on workers include:

  • Heat and ultraviolet-related illness – heat-related illnesses result from the body’s central nervous system and adaptation mechanisms malfunctioning during intense heat, and include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, fainting, cramps and rhabdomyolysis.Workers exposed to extreme heat are more prone to accidents and injuries and low productivity, due to sweaty palms, foggy safety goggles, discomfort, agitation and fatigue, while outdoor workers are further at risk of UV radiation-related eye diseases.”OEM providers are uniquely positioned to monitor workers for climate-related health hazards, educate employers and workers on heat stress and UV radiation exposure prevention, and evaluate and treat heat-related injury and illness,” ACOEM says.They “should be prepared to recommend heat stress medical surveillance programs and prevention/adaptation strategies for occupational heat stress”.
  • Air quality-related illness – heat waves, increased global temperatures and UV radiation and extreme weather degrade air quality; degraded air quality can exacerbate the effects of occupational pollutants like ground-level ozone, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and pesticides, ACOEM says.”The spectrum of organ systems impacted by degraded air quality ranges from cardiovascular to reproductive. The OEM provider is well prepared to attend to this range of potential health impacts when designing or implementing a surveillance system in order to include at-risk workers.”
  • Allergic sensitisation – it is predicted that occupational respiratory and allergic disorders will increase with climate change, ACOEM says.Intensifying seasonal variations, extreme weather patterns and changes in ambient carbon dioxide levels, are contributing to rising allergen levels, while increased air pollutants are damaging people’s natural airway protection mechanisms.”As a result, the immune cells are more exposed to inhaled allergens and irritants, and so individuals are at higher risk of sensitisation,” the organisation says.It says OEM providers can help to identify workers with compromised health and work performance from allergies, as well as the environmental conditions that lead to nasopharyngeal and respiratory conditions like allergy sensitisation.

According to ACOEM, climate change can also have notable indirect health impacts on workers, including through disaster zone exposures, stress from increasing weather fluctuations like prolonged drought, and increased prevalence of waterborne and vector-borne diseases.

“It will be important to guide employers to have additional mental health resources available for their workforce during increasingly frequent severe weather events,” it says.

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