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Cancers, chronic diseases... Billions of workers hit by climate change, warns the UN

A “staggering” number of workers are exposed to a toxic cocktail of health risks linked to climate change and they are not sufficiently protected by existing regulations, the UN warned on Monday.

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Cancers, chronic diseases... Billions of workers hit by climate change, warns the UN

A “staggering” number of workers are exposed to a toxic cocktail of health risks linked to climate change and they are not sufficiently protected by existing regulations, the UN warned on Monday. Increased frequency and severity of heatwaves, heavy rainfall, forest fires, droughts, tropical cyclones... Workers, particularly those outdoors, are on the front line of the consequences of global warming, warns the latest report, Ensuring the occupational safety and health in times of climate change from the World Labor Organization (ILO).

The latter are exposed to these phenomena “often for longer periods and at higher intensities than the general population”, conclude the specialists. While in 2023, according to NASA, the month of July was the hottest on record, the climate crisis “creates serious health risks for 70% of workers around the world”. The time is no longer just for prevention: the variation in temperatures and the multiplicity of extreme phenomena are already having serious impacts on the safety and health of workers in all regions of the world. The ILO estimates that more than 2.4 billion workers on the planet (out of a total workforce of 3.4 billion) are “likely to be exposed to excessive heat at one time or another. »

This proportion has increased from 65.5% to 70.9% since 2000. According to the report, 18,970 lives and more than 2 million years of life are lost each year. Not to mention the 26.2 million people worldwide who suffer from chronic kidney disease linked to heat stress in the workplace.

Working conditions are becoming more difficult in many exposed industries. For example, excessive heat reduces productivity in agriculture, construction and other sectors. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) showed that every day the temperature exceeds 32°C in the United States, there is a 1.7% drop in production. Agriculture, tourism and fishing are particularly sensitive to extreme weather conditions. Fluctuations in these industries can lead to job losses and economic upheaval in regions that rely heavily on them.

Climate change causes multiple health problems, such as cancers, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, kidney dysfunctions and mental health problems (depression, anxiety, irritability, suicide, etc.). The report cites in detail:

- 1.6 billion workers exposed to UV rays, with more than 18,960 work-related deaths each year due to non-melanoma skin cancer.

- 1.6 billion people likely to be exposed to air pollution in the workplace, leading to up to 860,000 work-related deaths among outdoor workers each year.

- More than 870 million agricultural workers are at risk of exposure to pesticides, with more than 300,000 deaths attributed to pesticide poisoning each year.

- 15,000 work-related deaths each year due to exposure to diseases caused by parasites (such as malaria, Editor's note).

The financial consequences for employers are also legion, due to lost productivity, business interruption and damaged infrastructure, as well as the costs associated with climate change mitigation and adaptation measures as new regulations come into force. Certain sectors, such as agriculture, energy, heavy industry and manufacturing, transport and construction, are expected to be significantly affected by climate change and the transition to zero carbon.

“Alarmingly”, heat stress “is expected to reduce global GDP by $2.4 trillion in 2030.” The report finds that the impact is unevenly distributed geographically, with the expected reduction in working hours in 2030 amounting to around 5% in South Asia and West Africa, and 0.5% in South Africa. and West Africa, and 0.1% in the European sub-regions

Another impact is that if global temperatures rise by 2°C by the end of the century, asylum applications to the European Union (EU) are expected to double.

Even if global warming is limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, cumulative financial losses from heat-related illnesses alone are expected to reach $2.4 billion. In the United States, the health costs of air pollution and climate change “already well exceed $800 billion per year” and this figure is only expected to grow.

In 2021, a study found that even a “modest” increase in workplace temperatures led to 20,000 additional accidents per year in California, with a social cost of $1 billion. By comparing records from 2001 to 2018 of more than 11 million California workers' compensation claims to local high-frequency weather data, the authors isolated the impact of warmer days on the number of claims. The study shows that on days when temperatures are above 90°F (about 32°C), workers have a 6 to 9 percent higher risk of injury than on days when temperatures are below 50 or 60° . When the thermometer exceeds 38°C, the risk of injury increases by 10 to 15%.

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