Climate-related heat stress threatens worker productivity
Thermal stress linked to climate change means that workers, especially those who work outdoors, work and earn less. A fifth of workers’ output could be lost. When temperatures rose above 35 degrees Celsius (95 F) for a few days in Europe last week, collective complaints of heat exhaustion could be heard loudly among outdoor and office workers.
But, in the equatorial countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, rising temperatures force people to work under severe heat stress for much of the year.
Global heating and reduced productivity
Low-income workers employed in agriculture or construction who work primarily outdoors are particularly vulnerable to heat stress. The obvious health consequences are heat exhaustion, heatstroke and sometimes death. But researchers are increasingly following the link between heat stress and declining productivity as part of the economic case for climate action.
In South Africa, GDP per capita will decline by up to 20% by 2100 due to heat stress if warming occurs at the highest forecast of 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit), according to a 2020 study co-authored by researchers at the Venice-based Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC).
Much of the impact is borne by “highly exposed” outside workers, who are often low-skilled and engaged in agriculture, mining, quarrying and construction, explained co-author Shouro Dasgupta, researcher and lecturer at the CMCC.
The study shows that the labor productivity of low-skilled workers declines beyond a threshold of 26.2 degrees Celsius. However, it does not take into account other climate impacts such as sea level rise, floods or droughts. The 20% drop in worker output is therefore probably a “conservative estimate,” Dasgupta said.
Meanwhile, a groundbreaking 2019 global study by the International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency that champions labor standards, estimated that inflamed heat stress in a changing climate could reduce levels of global productivity of the equivalent of 80 million full-time jobs. by 2030.
In other words, 2.2% of the world’s total working hours could be lost due to extreme heat by the end of the decade.
In the warmer countries of South Asia and West Africa, where the proportion of low-income workers is often higher, the resulting loss of working hours could reach 5%.
But this is the best-case scenario, as the projections in the ILO report assume a Temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, which will only be possible thanks to rapid decarbonization. It also assumes that jobs in construction and agriculture are in the shadows, which is often not the case.
“Already at 24-25 degrees, our productivity and pace are starting to slow down,” said Catherine Saget, Geneva-based researcher and lead author of the ILO report on Working on a Warmer Planet. At 35 degrees Celsius, agricultural or construction workers with “high physical labor intensity” lose 30 minutes of productivity every hour due to heat stress. The heat is not universal, however, and is “made worse” in places with high humidity, she said.
Workers die from extreme heat in Qatar
The deaths of thousands of migrant workers who have often worked on Qatar’s World Cup football infrastructure over the past decade have made headlines. Many died from heat stress.
Nepalese workers in their 20s and 30s in Qatar have suffered an alarming increase in heart attack deaths, likely due to heat stress, according to a 2019 report from cardiovascular experts.
An ILO heat stress study in Qatar has shown that manual workers often continue to work in temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius under conditions of 90% relative humidity, which is exacerbated by intense solar radiation .
But efforts to protect workers with the 2007 regulations that stopped work during the hottest hour of the day in midsummer – from mid-June to the end of August – ignored the possibility that temperatures above 35 degrees could occur for at least four months of the year. .
Almost 15 years later, the Qatari authorities finally responded with Heat highlight the legislation that was passed in May. The ban on working outside was extended from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. from June to September. And workers should stop what they are doing if the temperature in the workplace exceeds 32.1 degrees, as measured by the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature Index, which includes factors such as humidity and temperature. solar radiation.
In June, noon work bans in the summer went into effect across the Middle East, including Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But according to Migrant-Rights.org, a Gulf advocacy organization that aims to advance the rights of migrant workers, they don’t go far enough.
“With the exception of Qatar, the bans are based on arbitrary calendar dates rather than actual daytime temperatures, leaving workers exposed to dangerous levels of heat stress,” Migrant-Rights.org reported.
In Bahrain, summer work bans only extend from July to August, but temperatures have already peaked at nearly 52 degrees Celsius this year after the hottest May in a century.
But, in Qatar, years of lobbying and heightened awareness of heat stress among construction workers mean that the government is now “taking the issue of heat stress particularly seriously,” said Max Tunon, head of the project office of ILO in Qatar.
He said that the fact that 90% of those foreign workers are engaged in construction – which along with agriculture is the sector most affected by rising temperatures – has made heat stress a widespread problem.
Catherine Saget said there was “increased political will” across the world to address occupational health and safety for workers, which includes heat stress. She cites the 2013 factory fire that killed more than 1,000 workers at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh as a key trigger in the transition to tackling working conditions.
Work less and earn less
Low-income and low-skilled workers, who already suffer from economic inequalities, bear the brunt of increased heat stress.
“Low-skilled workers are more exposed to the elements,” said CMCC researcher Shouro Dasgupta.
By working fewer productive hours in a warming world, the poorest workers will suffer increased poverty. “You work less, you earn less,” he said. And compared to “low-exposure” workers who work indoors, these high-exposure workers will lose a “greater share of their earnings.”
Deterioration malnutrition among low-income workers will exacerbate the effects of heat stress.
According to a 2020 study co-authored by Dasgupta, agricultural workers in Uganda already facing food insecurity due to climate change will not be able to access the extra calories needed to stay cool and maintain productivity under heat stress.
This will amplify existing labor productivity losses due to rising temperatures, leading to a 20% drop in economic output by the end of the century – assuming a severe warming of 3.5 degrees Celsius.
The vicious cycle is expected to continue in equatorial regions, with most countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia offering no protection to workers from heat stress, according to Dasgupta.
This will add to climate-induced displacement and demographic shift to already overcrowded cities. “People will move from the hottest and poorest areas to the richest and coldest areas,” he said.
Productivity losses to stimulate climate action?
The massive economic costs of declining labor productivity due to heat stress outweigh the costs of a weather action, according to Tord Kjellstrom, Honorary Professor at the Institute for Global Health at University College London and author of numerous studies on heat stress at work.
“The economic losses could be greater than the cost of converting electricity production into renewable energy sources,” he said.
“Such data could convince major greenhouse gas emitting countries to accelerate mitigation in their own national interest. “