Adapting workplaces to climate change: Workplace safety and sustainability

​​​​​With an increasingly hotter and inclement climate, the effects on occupational health and safety of workers needs to be considered and incorporated into workplace health and safety management systems across sectors. To address the possible health and safety risks associated with climate change, health and safety committees and officers should consider incorporating indicators of climate-related hazards and assess the hazard-specific vulnerability of workers, workflows, and their environments.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), 2019 marked a decade of unusual global heat, melting ice, and rising sea levels due to human-generated greenhouse gases. Indicators have not decreased as the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service announced that the period from February 2023 to January 2024 marked the first time Earth had endured 12 consecutive months of temperatures that were 1.5 degrees celsius hotter than pre-industrial era temperatures.

While national leaders navigate the policy considerations around the Paris Agreement and the need to implement a just transition to clean energy, climate change is not limited to policy concerns. There are pressing and practical considerations that organisations, and more particularly, their health and safety committees need to consider regarding climate change (or, extreme, unusual weather events) and its direct impact on worker occupational health and safety. On 28 April 2024, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) will observe World Day for Safety and Health at Work by focusing on climate change and its effects on occupational health and safety.

The overlap between climate change on occupational health and safety

Climate change includes increased temperatures, rainfall anomalies, extreme weather events, and sea level rise and it impacts human health and safety in two main ways:

  • the changing severity or frequency of climate impacts in contexts where particular weather patterns already exist. In this regard, areas in which drought, extreme temperatures, persistent rainfall, or severe thunderstorms are common are likely to experience worsening impacts associated with the climate phenomena; and


  • new and unanticipated climate impacts will likely emerge where they have not previously occurred. For example, the geographic and seasonal distribution of mosquitoes, ticks, flies and other vectors is growing to regions that were previously unaffected by them and the vector-borne diseases they transmit. In addition, increasing water temperatures allow certain hazardous biological agents to flourish.

Occupational risks exacerbated by climate change include heat stress, ultraviolet radiation, poor air quality and pollution, major industrial accidents, injuries or fatalities associated with extreme weather events, an increase in vector-borne diseases and increased exposure to chemicals, such as pesticides, or pathogens. In addition, many people exposed to climate-related emergencies and disasters experience serious distress and other mental health consequences.

Hard hit sectors and operations

Work conducted outdoors is inherently more likely to expose workers to climate-related hazards. Similarly, work processes that rely on physical labour or proximity to natural elements will also increase the likelihood of workers suffering from climate-related ailments. Extreme weather events and natural disasters may also force workers to remain at the worksite prolonging work hours until replacements arrive, triggering mental fatigue that increases the risk of accidents.

Given their exposure to such elements, industries such as forestry, construction, agriculture, emergency response, shipping and ship repair, mining, transport and logistics, are at greater risk of climate-related occupational hazards, which will result in adverse health outcomes for workers. Indoor work environments that incorporate labour intensive workflows, such as manufacturing, are equally susceptible to the occurrence of climate-related health and safety risks.

Relying on legislative and regulatory development is not enough

Although weather, adverse weather events (including fire) and their impact on employees are already contemplated, to some degree in existing occupational health and safety legislation, abiding by or reacting to existing legislation may not be sufficient to adequately safeguard people and operations in circumstances where climate change and the risks that it presents to workers will alter what employers currently understand the occupational health and safety risks to be. There are several reasons for organisations to adopt a self-directed approach to identifying and assessing climate hazards as well as implementing mitigation and prevention strategies to increase operational and individual resilience in the face of such hazards. This will ultimately require a far more integrated understanding of the impact of climate on day-to-day tasks, the possible need to reconsider the arrangement of work and allocation of tasks, and a growing reliance on and reaction to, early warning systems.

 Similarly, employers may be required to re-identify and assess hazards and risks through the lens of climate change, where these present hazards that were previously unidentified or, although identified were reasonably regarded as being remote possibilities. These considerations will apply to the impact on work environments too, and not only to immediate impact on workers such as to the controls necessary for the storage of chemicals, fire protections and disease control.

Exposure to airborne pollutants may increase as droughts, windstorms, veldfires, and heat intensify. This should be considered further in terms of adapting and supplementing training provided to employees to ensure that they are trained on the relevant considerations applicable to climate control as part of on-going risk assessments. 

While global attention focuses on the impact of climate change on workplace safety, many of the risks associated with it are not novel, but their frequency and severity will intensify and the contexts in which the occur will expand.

Under existing Environmental Regulations for Workplaces, organisations are already obliged to mitigate risks posed by extreme temperatures. In this regard, employers cannot require or allow workers to work in environments where temperatures are excessively high or low without taking appropriate precautions. Concepts such as dry-bulb and wet-bulb temperatures which indicate the ambient temperature of an environment having regard to localised variables that make the temperature feel hotter or colder, as well as the time-weighted average wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) index will likely be everyday terms for everyday application in outdoor work environments or work environments with rudimentary temperature controls in place.

Because global heat is a prominent feature of climate change with heatwaves impacting productivity and worker safety, a wider range of employers will need to consider implementing scheduled hydration breaks, reassess work intervals and working hours, or consider facilitating rest periods in cooled environments to assist workers to acclimate to the more severe environmental conditions in which they work.

In addition, certain regulations need not be amended or introduced in industries where legal obligations may be interpreted to include the need to consider climatic influences. This is particularly the case where emergency plans are required, for example in respect of mines, major hazardous installations, or workplaces where explosives are handled. Health and safety personnel must include extreme weather events and appropriate responses to such events in emergency protocols.

Climate considerations that should form part of risk assessments and daily monitoring

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the United Nations and the WMO, advocates for the practical utility of following a risk-based approach to adapting to climate change for states, and the framework is equally applicable to organisations. Establishing indicators of climate-related hazards and assessing the likelihood of exposure will enable organisations to assess hazard-specific vulnerability. Understanding this framework will assist health and safety personnel in conducting risk assessments and documenting methods of mitigation associated with climate change.

Important factors in mitigating risks associated with climate change include considering whether personal protective equipment (PPE) and certain machinery are suitable for use in varying conditions and whether such conditions create new risks associated with the PPE or machinery. For example, the health and safety precautions required to operate machinery or tools that vibrate will change in hot and cold environments. Health and safety personnel, particularly those supervising daily work, should recognise acclimatising and building tolerance to changing climates is also a mitigation strategy to manage the climate change risks.

The notion of assessing risk by having regard to vulnerable employees which emerged in managing the exposure to COVID-19 will likely apply in the context of climate change. The notion prompts employers to identify vulnerable employees based on an assessment of (i) the type of work or work environment that increase the risk of exposure to hazards, and (ii) individual characteristics, such as comorbidities, that increase the risk that a worker will develop more severe adverse health responses when exposed to the hazard, such as the elderly being more vulnerable to fatal health outcomes associated with heat stress.

Organisations across industries should develop emergency plans specifically tailored to address the challenges posed by extreme weather events. These plans should outline proactive measures to protect workers, mitigate risks, and maintain operational continuity in the face of climate-related disruptions.


Ensuring competence in occupational health and safety is another important factor for managing the impacts of climate change on workers' wellbeing. We anticipate that organisations will integrate competence requirements that specifically address climate-related risks inherent to the geographic location, sector, or type of work that are applicable to the organisation's operations.

Health and Safety culture and social security in respect of climate change

In the context of climate change, the intersection of health and safety culture with social security measures becomes increasingly critical. By 2030, it is projected that over 2% of total working hours worldwide will be lost annually due to excessive heat . These predictions not only jeopardise operational productivity but also threaten workers' ability to earn a livelihood, potentially leading to a disregard for safety culture surrounding climate-related risks.

It remains to be seen whether the legislature will enhance social security entitlements, such as unemployment insurance to accommodate disruptions caused by severe weather and unsafe working conditions exacerbated by climate change, as well as provisions for compensation for occupational injuries and diseases that may become prevalent in a changing climate.

In the face of intensifying climate change impacts, the imperative to protect workers' health and safety is a pressing consideration. Integrating climate considerations into occupational health and safety management systems, from risk assessments to emergency planning, is essential for mitigating the hazards associated with climate change.

[1] Working on a warmer planet: The impact of heat stress on labour productivity and decent work, International Labour Organisation (2019)


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