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For global workers, extreme heat and climate change present health risks

Apr 24, 2024 | Health | 0 comments

On Monday, the U.N. labour organization issued a warning that over 70% of the global workforce will likely be exposed to excessive heat during their careers, heightening concerns about sunlight exposure. The International Labor Organization (ILO) also cautioned against air pollution, pesticides, and other hazards that could lead to health problems, including cancer.

The ILO, with a fundamental goal of ensuring workplace health and safety, proposed ways in a new report that governments can improve legislation and manage the growing impact of climate change on workers.

“This is having detrimental effects on the health of workers, not to mention on the health system as a whole,” said Manal Azzi, the organization’s team lead on occupational safety and health. “We’re looking at more than 22 million workers suffering from sicknesses and injuries related to exposure to excessive heat.”

The ILO estimates that over 2.4 billion workers, more than 70% of the global workforce, are likely to face excessive heat as part of their jobs. This data is based on the most recent figures available from 2020, marking an increase from over 65% in 2000.

The Geneva-based body cited the growing link between climate change and the fallout on human health, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory troubles, and mental health.

For example, the report stated that 1.6 billion workers are exposed to ultraviolet radiation as part of their jobs, leading to nearly 19,000 deaths a year from non-melanoma skin cancer and ailments such as sunburn, skin blistering, eye damage, cataracts, and retina trouble like macular degeneration.

The same number of workers — 1.6 billion — are exposed to workplace air pollution, “resulting in up to 860,000 work-related deaths among outdoor workers annually,” according to the statement.

The report emphasized that some subsets of workers are particularly vulnerable, such as firefighters in the United States battling wildfires. Experts say these have become bigger and more frequent because of climate change, which has caused high heat and excessively dry conditions.

Some countries have taken action by enacting legislation that calls for regular surveillance of workers regularly exposed to heat, excess sunlight, air pollution, and other health risks on the job.

In other cases, the ILO says collective bargaining agreements between labour and business leaders have helped mitigate the risks.

U.N. agencies and environmental activists have increasingly sought to highlight the link between climate change and human health. According to the European Union’s climate agency, Planet Earth tallied a 10th straight month of record monthly temperatures in March.

The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, just a handful of climate-related threats, such as malaria and water insecurity, will claim a quarter of a million additional lives each year.

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