Climate change is disrupting society, the economy, and nature. Understanding and responding to climate impacts is key to increasing the long-term resilience of systems and institutions. In this blog, I focus on one aspect of the impact of climate change on society — its effect on workforce health. I explore what businesses must do to ensure that human capital assets are protected and resilient, then propose a four-step framework to help the private sector address workforce climate resilience considerations.
The population health impact of COVID-19 has been severe, causing major disruptions and operational challenges for business. These impacts have provided a wake-up call to many organizations regarding the critical importance of workforce health for business resilience.
However, COVID-19 is not the only – nor potentially biggest – health-related challenge we face. The pandemic hints at the larger and longer-term impacts to workforce health and business resilience likely to be wrought by climate change. Even accounting for the pandemic, the Lancet Countdown report indicates that climate change remains the "single greatest threat to global health" in the 21st century.
How climate change affects health
Evidence of health impacts from climate change are well-established in scientific literature. These are far-reaching and varied, ranging from increases in chronic conditions like asthma, cardiovascular disease, and allergies, to increases in infectious vector-borne diseases (such as those spread by mosquitos and ticks) and water-borne diseases (such as cholera and typhoid), to effects on mental health. Key exposure pathways for these health risks include extreme heat, severe weather, and reduced air/food/water quality.
Extreme heat alone already affects almost half of the global population. The poleward shift of Aedes aegypti mosquitos expected this century due to climate impacts on habitats could threaten nearly a billion people with new exposure to viruses like dengue and Zika. And climate impacts to agriculture and food security could put 50 million people at risk for undernourishment by 2050.
Population health impacts are worker health impacts too
Impacts on the health of broader populations have implications for workforces. Worker health impacts are felt across a range of sectors and in various types of work from construction, to mining, energy production and agriculture, to retail, emergency response, and white collar office work.
For example, more than 1 billion workers are already exposed to high heat episodes and about a third of all exposed workers suffer negative health effects. A recent report in the Lancet estimates that, in 2020 alone, 295 billion hours of potential work were lost due to the health effects of extreme heat exposure, which is just one of many climate-related health hazards.
Such impacts will only become more frequent. Increases in severe weather hazards could cause utility workers to sustain more frequent and severe injuries, while indoor retail employees and office workers may suffer greater incidence of asthma attacks and lower cognitive performance due to poor air quality during extreme heat events.
Connections between climate change and health are getting more attention. For example, the significant toll that climate change has on human health was highlighted at COP26. Yet despite the magnitude of the risk, awareness remains low outside of the public health community. The 2021-2022 Global Risks Perception Survey by the World Economic Forum, for example, indicates that few global leaders in either the private or public sector perceive that climate change impacts on health are among the most critical short or long-term global risks.
Real risks for business resilience
As evidenced by the fact that one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is “Good Health and Wellbeing,” government, business, and other societal actors recognize that human health is central to economic growth and development. Given this recognition, the lack of awareness around the material risks related to climate health impacts on populations and workforces is alarming and poses major risks to both economic and societal resilience. I give three examples below of such risks below, connected to business productivity and continuity, community vulnerability and inequity, and regulation.
Business productivity and continuity:
The impacts of climate change on workforce health are already evident and are expected to grow in the coming decades. In addition to the examples of these impacts mentioned earlier, others include worker absenteeism, diminished productivity, mental health impacts, and impacts to supply chains due to upstream workforce illness as seen due to COVID.
Climate-related health impacts are estimated to already cost in excess of $800 billion USD annually, in the U.S. alone. While businesses may be able to pass some of the associated financial risk to health insurers, costs resulting from losses in employee productivity and business continuity cannot be passed on and will impact companies’ bottom lines.
Community vulnerability and health inequity:
Employees from vulnerable communities and populations will be hardest- and earliest-hit if effective mitigation strategies are not adopted quickly. Due to long-standing disparities in social determinants of health, certain sectors of the workforce, such as BIPOC populations in the U.S., are more vulnerable to climate-related health effects. Employers whose workers come from vulnerable communities should be particularly aware of ways in which business will be impacted and motivated take rapid action to implement mitigation methods, such as building community resilience to climate change.
A changing regulatory landscape:
In addition to operational and personnel risks, businesses will face increased legal risks as the occupational health regulatory landscape changes in response to climate impacts. For example, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has instated the California Heat Illness Prevention Standard which requires employers to provide training, water, shade, and planning to prevent worker illness due to extreme heat, impacting the agricultural, construction, landscaping, and oil & gas industries.
To mitigate future risks, business leaders need to anticipate such shifts in the regulatory environment. Many organizations are already preparing for climate-related physical and transition risks using frameworks like the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) assessment. Similar foresight and preparation is necessary to protect an even more valuable asset – human capital – as well as prepare for the increased importance of workforce health indicators in ESG and future regulatory reporting.
The power of the private sector
The financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are a bellwether regarding the critical value of human health to economic prosperity. Climate change also poses major risks to workforce health and business prosperity, which should serve as a call to action for business leaders to build workforce resilience to climate health impacts now.
The private sector is powerful. As employers and oftentimes providers of health benefits, businesses have great influence on population health, sometimes even more so than government.
Private sector leaders should protect employees and themselves by mitigating workforce climate health impacts to the greatest degree possible.
The path forward: mitigation and adaptation
Long-term, climate mitigation through net-zero emissions pathways is needed. Reducing emissions will protect human capital (as well as physical assets and the natural world) from the worst climate impacts.
But given that climate change is already happening, adaptation is also necessary. The Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework was developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide a roadmap for community resilience to adverse climate impacts on health. Taking inspiration from this framework, I created a similar four-step approach tailored to the private sector.
- Quantify the business risks associated with climate change impacts on workforce resilience: Health risk assessment can be incorporated as part of holistic climate risk assessment methods (including physical and transition climate risk assessments). It requires collecting robust baseline data on employee health, developing measurable KPIs for workforce health, and forecasting health impacts to business under various business and climate scenarios.
- Assess industry-specific workforce vulnerabilities to climate-related workforce health hazards: Which segments of your industry’s workforce are more vulnerable to particular hazards, either by type of work, or due to broader social determinants like living conditions, socioeconomic status, and underlying health conditions? Determine this, then develop and implement programs to promote workforce health equity and resilience, including climate change adaptation strategies in communities where employees live.
- Tailor occupational health and safety policies, equipment, workflows, training, and support to mitigate climate impacts on employee health and well-being identified in steps 1 and 2: For utility workers, improvements might include developing more accurate methods of anticipating weather hazards that lead to injury, changing work schedules to avoid extreme heat or other hazardous conditions, implementing heat shielding methods for employees that work outdoors, and improving safety equipment. The Health and Safety Executive of the UK (HSE UK) recommends adoption of a heat stress checklist to identify and prioritize heat illness prevention. More broadly, mitigating climate-related health impacts requires expanding access to mental health and stress-reduction programs to avert the mental tolls of dealing with climate hazards.
- Expand occupational health and safety assessment programs and data systems organization-wide. Robust data governance and analytics systems provide timely and reliable data to inform strategic mitigation efforts, while also protecting employee privacy and data security. The ability to make evidence-based business decisions to protect workforce health and manage enterprise-level risk rests on appropriate collection, analysis, and interpretation of data.
Climate hazards already impact workforce health, and these effects will become more severe without appropriate mitigation and adaptation. Businesses can best prepare for future uncertainty by acting now to establish effective strategies to promote workforce resilience and protect human capital over the long-term.