Warning over ‘cocktail’ of serious health hazards for workers

More than 70 per cent of the global workforce are likely to be exposed to climate-change-related health hazards, and existing OHS protections are struggling to keep up with the resulting risks, according to an International Labour Organization (ILO) report.

For example, the ILO estimates that 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.

The report, Ensuring safety and health at work in a changing climate, estimated that 18,970 lives and 2.09 million disability-adjusted life years are lost annually due to the 22.87 million occupational injuries, which are attributable to excessive heat.

This is in addition to an estimated 26.2 million people worldwide living with chronic kidney disease linked to workplace heat stress.

“Comparing exposure estimates for 2020 with those for 2000, there was a 34.7 per cent increase in the number of workers exposed to excessive heat. This increase can be attributed to both rising temperatures and a growing labour force,” said the report.

It also cited research from a meta-analysis of 30 countries, including more than 447 million workers from over 40 different occupations, which demonstrated that 35 per cent of workers who are typically or frequently exposed to excessive heat at work (a minimum of 6 hours per day, five days per week, for two months of the year) experience physiological strain, while 30 per cent of them also report productivity losses.

Agricultural work is particularly hazardous, with one study finding that farmworkers are 35 times more likely to succumb to a heat-related death than workers in other occupations.

The report also estimated that some 1.6 billion workers are exposed to UV radiation, with more than 18,960 work-related deaths annually from nonmelanoma skin cancer.

Specifically, workers in countries with higher levels of ozone depletion are at greater risk of higher intensities of UV radiation, such as in Australia.

Other environmental factors affecting a worker’s solar UV exposure include time of year or day, latitude, altitude and reflection off the ground and work surfaces.

Outdoor workers, including those in construction and agriculture, lifeguards, power utility workers, gardeners, postal workers and dock workers, are more at risk, according to the report.

Short-term injuries from UV exposure, such as sunburn, skin blistering and eye damage, are normally temporary, however long-term effects can be serious.

These include cataracts, macular degeneration, pterygium, weakened immune systems and skin cancers, such as melanoma, basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

The report also found that more than 870 million workers in agriculture are likely to be exposed to pesticides, with more than 300,000 deaths attributed to pesticide poisoning annually.

Workers in agriculture, plantations, chemical industries, forestry, pesticide sales, green spaces and vector control are more likely to be affected by pesticide exposure, which can cause poisoning, cancer, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, reproductive disorders, cardiovascular disease, COPD, and immune suppression.

“Workplace pesticide exposures are of particular concern as they are frequently sustained over years of work and can lead to both acute and chronic health effects,” the report said.

“Occupational exposure occurs during handling, dilution, mixing, application, and disposal of pesticides, as well as during cleaning of containers and handling of crops. Workers may also be at risk during re-entry into treated fields, throughout the harvest and when cleaning equipment.”