Workers Among Most Vulnerable to Climate Change

January 12, 2021 by Scott Fletcher

A group of grape pickers. Photo by Tomas Castelazo, licensed under

By Shannon Twiss, Staff Contributor

Policymakers should take a closer look at the way the effects of climate change are taking their toll on our most essential workers in agriculture, manufacturing, and emergency response.

While many of the effects of climate change on human health are well-documented, there is a marked absence of focus on the ways these effects impact workers and the ways climate change can stress the systems designed to protect them, like OSHA and workers’ compensation programs.

Some of the major climate-related hazards that put workers at risk include heat stress, extreme weather events, and exposure to hazardous chemicals and pathogens. Agricultural and other outdoor workers are particularly vulnerable to weather conditions. Those who are paid based on how much they harvest are disincentivized from taking breaks to rest, hydrate, and move to cooler areas.[1] The resulting dehydration may be the cause of an outbreak of chronic kidney disease among agricultural workers.[2] Manufacturing is another industry in which many workers are exposed to heat, because the buildings that house large-scale manufacturing are too big to be air-conditioned and can be hotter inside than outside.[3] For both indoor and outdoor workers, heat exposure can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and can exacerbate existing chronic diseases.[4] Hotter working conditions are also associated with reduced cognitive function, which leads to increased risk of injury and decreased productivity.[5]

A specific subset of workers whose risk of illness or injury is directly proportional to rising global temperatures are those on the front lines of responding to extreme weather events and natural disasters. The increasing frequency and magnitude of wildfires in the western United States, for example, will require the employment of more firefighters. Their work is increasingly dangerous and includes risks of exposure to smoke-based air pollution and of psychological injury when responding to loss of life and property.[6]

Climate change intensifies other existing threats, such as exposure to hazardous chemicals. As the ranges of weeds and pests expand, farming tends to rely on more and different pesticides, to which agricultural workers are then exposed. Environmental pollutants to which workers are already exposed are more volatile due to warmer temperatures, which can result in airborne transport of chemicals for long distances.[7] Vectors for pathogens, like mosquitos and ticks, will also see increasing and/or varying ranges, which has health implications for any outdoor workers.[8]

Workers are at greater risk than the general population because they are less free to elect to avoid the hazards described above – their livelihood requires such exposure.[9] Workers’ exposures are greater in frequency, duration, and intensity, and they have been described as a “canary” in the “coal mine” of climate change.[10] For low-wage workers, health effects of climate change linked to occupational exposure may be compounded by other non-work-related issues, such as inadequate housing and lack of air conditioning.[11] The more vulnerable workers are, the less power they have to advocate for mitigation efforts and bargain for workplace-based protections.

Existing systems are not well-equipped to address these challenges, largely because of unpredictable and rapidly changing conditions. Workplace-based responses are likely to include dramatic changes in work operations, scheduling, and building safety.[12] Emerging industries in the “green economy” present a brand-new set of health and safety concerns. Additionally, responses to one set of problems may create a new set of threats to workers’ wellbeing. For example, during higher temperatures, personal protective equipment, such as respirators, become increasingly unbearable.[13]

It is obvious that mitigating the effects of climate change is one piece of the workplace safety puzzle. One potential approach is to reduce emissions by shifting to a more sustainability-oriented economy. However, sustainability must not come at the cost of worker safety. As new industries and practices emerge as part of our efforts to respond to climate change, we should keep in mind that new hazards to workers may also develop.[14] A sustainability-focused response is not enough given already rapidly changing conditions, and our administrative agencies are not presently well-positioned to move quickly enough to protect vulnerable workers.

Three states, California, Washington and Minnesota, have adopted their own standards for workplace heat exposure, but a federal requirement doesn’t exist yet.[15] While OSHA has published and updated guidance for heat exposure, and other workplace-based risks, affirmative and mandatory rules are necessary.[16] A broader interpretation of the OSH Act’s general duty clause is one promising starting point. In 2013, OSHA cited the U.S. Postal Service under the general duty clause for failing to adequately respond to the heat-related death of a Massachusetts postal worker with policy and procedure changes regarding management of heat stress among employees.[17]

Technology-based responses, such as investment in sensors and improved PPE, have great potential, but can also be expensive. Administrative or legislative action may be necessary, because what is considered standard in a given industry may not be enough to keep workers safe as conditions quickly change. Existing agencies should expand surveillance and enforcement to include climate-related risks. Finally, more symbolic priorities can lead to concrete results. Data matters, and encouraging and funding research on this topic is important for policy development.[18] U.S. federal agencies have properly paid attention to “climate vulnerable” populations, such as chronic disease sufferers and the elderly, but repeatedly workers are not included in such definitions.[19] Because of their unique position as “climate canaries,” workers should be a central part of climate policy debate and development. This will help to ensure they receive appropriate funding and attention as we work to address, mitigate, and adapt to the effects of climate change.

[1] Barry Levy & Cora Roelofs, Impacts of Climate Change on Workers’ Health and Safety, Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Global Public Health (Feb. 25, 2019),

[2] Id.

[3]Colleen Walsh, Toll of Climate Change on Workers, Harvard Gazette (Nov. 1, 2019),

[4] Levy & Roelofs, supra note 1.

[5] Max Kiefer et al., Worker Health and Safety and Climate Change in the Americas: Issues and Research Needs, 40(3) Rev. Panam Salud Publica, 192 (2016),

[6] Id.

[7] Levy & Roelofs, supra note 1.

[8] Id.

[9] Impact of Climate on Workers, Nat’l Inst. for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Ctrs. for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), (last reviewed Dec. 6, 2016).

[10] Cora Roelofs & David Wegman, Workers: the Climate Canaries, 104(10) Am. J. Pub. Health, 1799 (2014),

[11] Maria Nilsson & Tord Kjellstrom, Climate Change Impacts on Working People: How to Develop Prevention Policies, 3 Global Health Action, Nov. 29, 2010,

[12] Levy & Roelofs, supra note 1.

[13] Roelofs & Wegman, supra note 10.

[14] Kiefer et al, supra note 5.

[15] Walsh, supra note 3.

[16] Roelofs & Wegman, supra note 10.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.