The effects of climate change in the workplace

Discover how the effects of climate change are transforming workplace environments, and how companies can create strategies for adapting work and workplaces to climate change.

author

Bobby Ahmed

Managing Director Bobby is a highly experienced Employment Law Solicitor and the Managing Director at Neathouse Partners. He has a wealth of knowledge on all aspects of Employment Law & HR, with a particular specialism in TUPE and redundancy.

Date

24 June 2024

Updated

11 July 2024
4 min read
featured
The effects of climate change in the workplace
8:13

Workers in some industries are already feeling the effects of climate change in their workplace. Their jobs are getting more difficult as they're increasingly exposed to serious health and safety risks like heat, disease and flooding.

As time passes, every workplace will be feeling the effects of the climate crisis. Employers around the globe have a duty to tackle and prepare for this, especially given their legal responsibility to protect their workers.

Climate change is an important topic for employers. As the need for action grows, businesses need to be able to adapt and react to the consequences of a hotter climate, while taking steps to ensure long-term sustainability.

Employers should respond by creating HR policies tailored to their sector, location and workforce. For indoor workplaces, this could mean giving workers extra breaks or relaxing dress codes. For outdoor workplaces, it might involve changing work hours to avoid peak heat times.

Vaccinations could also become relevant again as new diseases emerge due to climate change. Employers may need to rethink policies on vaccination in future, considering whether they can mandate it, encourage it, or treat unvaccinated workers differently. This will involve looking at their duty of care, human rights, and employment laws, including discrimination issues.

Employers also need to consider their responsibilities for providing information, and consult with employees on health and safety matters. They must also determine whether workers have the right to refuse to work due to health and safety concerns.

In this article, we take you through some of the risks that workers and employers may face due to climate change, and how these risks can be mitigated.



Working in intense heat

Cracked earth due to heatwave

For outdoor workers, rising temperatures due to climate change can lead to a higher risk of heatstroke, and other heat-related health problems like dehydration and heat exhaustion. Indoor workers in poorly ventilated spaces can also be at risk of experiencing heat stress – especially if they are in rooms without air conditioning in the height of summer.

Employers can take the following steps to help protect workers from extreme temperatures, including:

  • Planning work tasks (especially physical labour or outdoor work) during cooler parts of the day, such as before noon, to reduce heat exposure.
  • Reminding workers of the importance of staying hydrated, ensuring they have plenty of drinking water available.
  • Promoting heat stress awareness and training workers to recognise the signs of heat stress so they know when to seek help.
  • Encouraging staff to take regular breaks in shaded or cooler areas whenever possible.
  • Making sure that sun protection cream is easily available to guard against sun damage, which can cause sunburn, blisters, premature skin ageing, and increase the risk of skin cancer. (A high SPF sunscreen of at least SPF 30 should be used on exposed skin).
  • Frequent inspections of skin for unusual moles or spots, and offering free doctor consults if there are changes in shape, size or colour of moles, or if there are symptoms like itching or bleeding.
  • Offering UVA and UVB protective clothing whenever possible, and encouraging the wearing of clothing that covers the arms, torso and legs to protect from sunburn.

 

Extreme weather and natural disasters

Flood in the uk with cars under water

With climate change comes more frequent and intense natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, wildfires and storms. These events can cause significant damage to infrastructure, and put workers' safety and even lives at risk.

While employers can’t prevent natural disasters, they can certainly prepare for them and have safety plans in place. A risk assessment should identify the primary risks that could impact an organisation within the context of natural disasters, so that a comprehensive emergency plan can be developed.

Training should also be given to staff so that necessary actions can be taken should the worst happen. The emergency plan should cover evacuation procedures in the events of fire, flooding, storms or extreme weather.

A sufficient number of staff should be trained in fire precautions, and employers should provide adequate first aid facilities. The number of trained first aiders should ideally exceed the minimum number required by a first aid needs assessment. One or more people should act as liaisons with emergency services to ensure smooth communication.

After a disaster, if workers are involved in the clean-up process, employers should take steps to protect them from hazards like debris, contaminated water, or unstable structures. Appropriate personal protective equipment should be provided, as well as training on confined spaces and working at heights if applicable.

 

Increased air pollutants

nasa-vhSz50AaFAs-unsplash

Poor air quality can cause health problems like respiratory conditions such as asthma, and elevate the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Extra precautions should be taken for workers in industries like construction and manufacturing.

Climate change can worsen air quality by increasing pollutants like ground-level o-zone (which is formed when vehicle and industrial emissions react with sunlight and particulate matter).

Employers should ensure they have good ventilation and plenty of fresh or purified air on their premises. Stale or hot air from machinery and processes, as well as pollutants and other impurities, should be filtered out.

Dust extraction systems can remove dust directly at the source, while workers should be provided with properly fitted respiratory masks designed to filter out airborne particles. The air quality should also be monitored frequently.

Regularly breathing in pollutants can lead to severe health issues such as lung cancer, asthma, and COPD, potentially causing permanent disability and increasing the risk of premature death.

Organisations must provide workers with the necessary protection, instruction and training to manage these risks.

 

Illnesses linked to climate change

Different rain and weather patterns due to climate change can change the prevalence of diseases like Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and Dengue fever. For outdoor workers who are working in locations such as fields, forests or building/construction sites, this carries a greater level of risk.

Lyme disease, which is transmitted through an infected tick bite, causes a skin rash, flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache and fatigue, along with facial droop, nerve pain and numbness.

Employers can mitigate the risk of workers contracting diseases by promoting practices that reduce exposure, such as making workers avoid tick habitats, and wearing protective clothing.

Although West Nile virus and Dengue fever are not currently in the UK, climate-related changes mean that this could change in future, so employers should be prepared.


Mental health concerns

It's not uncommon for employees to feel stress and anxiety about the impacts of climate change on their workplace. For those who may have been involved in a natural disaster, there's also the consideration of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Mental health issues can adversely affect job performance and overall wellbeing.

Although severe climate-related events are relatively rare in the UK, employers must recognise the importance of addressing mental health concerns in the workplace as the UK climate changes. Providing mental health support for workers affected by stress and other issues is important.

Create a comprehensive emergency plan for climate change

Protect your staff and mitigate risk with an emergency safety plan for your business that covers natural disasters from climate change and other risks such as fire. Our experts at Neathouse Partners can guide you through the process to help keep your employees safe.

Get in touch by calling 0333 041 1094 today or use our contact form.

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