Climate change research is gradually shifting from "what if" to "what then" - what does it mean for our economy, our infrastructure, our children's health and wellbeing. Is it time to start thinking about what it means for workplace health and safety? We put this question to Wagish Yajaman, WSPS' Manager of Technical Services.
"Everyone's first priority is controlling existing hazards," he said. "Is climate change an existing hazard for your workplace? If it isn't today, it may be tomorrow."
Concern is mounting about the potential health and safety impacts of climate change-related events we're seeing now - extreme temperatures, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods - and which are expected to intensify in the future. These conditions could amplify existing workplace health and safety issues and lead to new and unanticipated hazards.
Neither your workers nor your business will be immune to potential consequences: a wider range of injuries and illnesses, property losses, and lower productivity. Read on to find out more about possible effects on your workers, and what steps you can take now to deal with it.
How climate change could affect health and safety
A study by Quebec's Institut de recherché Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST)* linked a number of health and safety hazards to climate change events. Here are four:
- Heat waves and higher temperatures
- heat stroke or other heat-related illness
- increased absorption of chemicals
- dehydration and decrease in cognitive performance
- accidents related to decrease in vigilance
- decrease in manual dexterity
- altered emotional states
- renal and cardiovascular disorders
- Extreme weather events
- falls, injuries and fatalities
- mental health disturbances
- diseases carried by insects (Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Hantavirus and more)
- Air pollutants
- cardiovascular disease
- respiratory disease from new pathogens and allergens, tight building syndrome
- increased allergy symptoms
- UV radiation
- skin diseases, including cancer and eye diseases
How your workplace can prepare
Strategies for staying informed and responding to emerging issues and hazards include:
- Appoint a volunteer "climate change advisor" - a manager or supervisor with a personal interest in climate change - to be your eyes and ears in the climate change community. Someone who knows your operation well is in a strong position to help you respond to new knowledge and threats.
- Conduct a "what if" exercise to identify possible climate change events that could affect your community and workplace. How prepared are you for these events? Could you take steps now to be better prepared?
- Ask your joint heath and safety committee to conduct a climate change inspection based on the results of the "what if" exercise.
- The next time you review and update your hazard assessments, apply a climate change filter. For example, seek alternatives for protective clothing that induces unnecessary heat. If workers wear clothing that protects against temperature extremes, will this clothing still protect them if temperatures become even more extreme? Could a reorganizing and scheduling of work help reduce specific effects of climate change?
- Reinforce protective practices with small, sensor-based technology that can pre-warn workers about exposures.
- Train supervisors and workers to identify climate-related exposures that can cause hazards.
- Watch for the introduction of climate change considerations into CSA standards. Read more about CSA Group Initiative.
How WSPS can help
The best way to anticipate hazards is to have a robust hazard assessment process in place. Consider these resources: free downloads (e.g. hazards checklist) • classroom, onsite and online hazard assessment training • articles, and more.