Taking On Climate Change
OEHS Professionals Address New and Familiar Hazards of a Warming World
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Climate change presents new challenges for occupational and environmental health and safety professionals and exacerbates familiar ones. Risks to industry are growing due to the greater intensity and frequency of climate-related events, requiring OEHS professionals to continually adapt to keep workers safe. Thankfully, applying OEHS methods to novel hazards is not new to the profession, as demonstrated recently during the COVID-19 pandemic and in emerging industries like artificial intelligence, sustainable energy production, and battery-electric vehicles. To mitigate new or worsening threats—as with past hazards—we must first understand them, then apply the hierarchy of controls.
Global climate change is not a new phenomenon, as Eunice Newton Foote demonstrated carbon dioxide’s heat-trapping properties in 1856, and Gilbert Plass formalized the theory tying carbon dioxide concentration to global average temperatures 100 years later. Since then, evidence of anthropogenic influence has been well studied. However, many of the U.S. national efforts to organize and address the hazards of climate change—for example, the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit and the National Integrated Heat Health Information System—were launched only in the last decade, meaning our understanding of the risk continues to evolve. According to the most recent National Climate Assessment, economic losses to the U.S. economy resulting from climate change will total in the billions and be felt most acutely in the agricultural, fisheries, and tourism sectors. Losses in these industries will threaten food supplies, and water supplies will be affected by flood events and algal blooms. Finally, impacts to infrastructure will worsen the effects of extreme weather events on those with existing health conditions, especially in economically depressed communities.
These consequences may seem all consuming, but OEHS professionals can address these concerns by breaking them down into manageable categories: biological, chemical, physical, and psychological.
BIOLOGICAL HAZARDS Many might think this first threat is an insect, but it is a member of a different family of creepy crawlers: arachnids. Ticks aren’t just creepy—they spread many serious illnesses, and where they choose to rear their tiny heads has much to do with environmental conditions like climate and prey. One tickborne illness, Lyme disease, personally affected one of the authors of this article when his mother, Janet, was diagnosed. Janet’s exposure most likely came from her outdoor employment at a nature center, and she suffered from the common Lyme disease symptoms, including rash, headache, fatigue, and muscle and joint pain. More serious symptoms can include cardiac and neurological impacts.
Almost 30 years have passed since Janet’s recovery, and the blacklegged ticks that carry Lyme disease have continued their march south and west from their point of discovery in Lyme, Connecticut, in 1981. High-risk areas for contracting Lyme disease now include the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Western Great Lakes regions, and further changes in climate are expected to expand the ticks’ habitat to the Midwest. As with Janet, those who work outside, especially in construction, landscaping, and forestry, are most at risk, particularly in the spring and summer.
Neither federal OSHA nor its state equivalents have passed regulations requiring employee protection from Lyme disease, but a 2022 OSHA fact sheet titled “Reducing the Risk of Worker Exposure to Disease-Carrying Ticks” (PDF) describes how to prevent tick bites. The agency’s guidance urges those at increased risk of exposure to ticks to treat their clothing with permethrin, treat exposed skin with EPA-listed repellants, wear light-colored clothing, and check themselves and their equipment for ticks after being in a tick habitat. Employees should be trained on how to recognize tickborne illnesses and how to protect themselves. There are also several prophylactics in development, including Pfizer’s phase 3 human trial for a Lyme disease vaccine, which may prevent transmission even if an employee is bitten by an infected tick, and a pill from Tarsus Pharmaceuticals, which is designed to work like the pet medications intended to kill ticks on the body before they can transmit disease.
Climate change will unfortunately make other “bugs” worse, and the next health concern is blowing in the wind. Valley fever is a fungal infection caused by the inhalation of Coccidioides spores, and symptoms include fever, cough, aches, fatigue, and long-term lung conditions in the most severe cases. The illness is named for the San Joaquin Valley, a major geological feature in central California where most cases of Valley fever have been reported. The fungus is spread when soil is disturbed and blown into the air, either by human activities, such as agriculture and construction, or by natural events like drought and extreme winds. Evidence shows that climate change is driving the expansion of hospitable growth areas for Coccidioides fungus and increasing the occurrence of soil-disturbing events like wildfires. For example, a 2022 report on indicators of climate change by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment notes that statewide incidence of Valley fever has increased almost fivefold since 2001, with major increases in counties north and south of the San Joaquin Valley. A growing number of cases have been diagnosed in the state of Washington since 2010, and the journal Nature reported last year that University of California, Irvine, researchers expect Valley fever to eventually reach North Dakota.
As with many climate change hazards, workers most at risk of catching Valley fever work outside. In the Southwest, where risk is highest, workers in agriculture, construction, ranching, natural resource extraction, and firefighting are at increased risk, with recent outbreaks recorded among solar energy construction workers, farm workers, and wildland firefighters. OSHA maintains a webpage on Valley fever that discusses control strategies, which include limiting outside work during dusty conditions; using equipment with enclosed, filtered cabs; providing rest areas away from dust-generating activities; and providing change areas for workers to remove dusty clothes before leaving the work site. OSHA also recommends hazard awareness training and personal protective equipment, including respirators, for individuals who must work in dusty conditions. Two controls that may be available in the future include a vaccine that is currently in development and a dust-storm warning system recently introduced in California Senate Bill 967.
Other biological threats that may increase in importance in the future include mosquitoes, which spread illnesses like dengue and are expected to expand their range as portions of the U.S. trend warmer and wetter.
Recognizing extreme weather events as workplace hazards allows organizations to prepare and train for their occurrence.
INDOOR AIR QUALITY As biological hazards drive humans inside, OEHS professionals must ensure that the indoor environment does not pose hazards of its own. In the U.S., people rely heavily on HVAC systems to provide not only heating and cooling but fresh air into our buildings. Less research is conducted on the health effects of poor indoor air quality compared to poor outdoor air quality; however, many researchers estimate that indoor air quality is often the same as outdoor air quality, but in some cases indoor air can be worse. A 2016 study by the VELUX Group found most people spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and time spent outside is usually spent in the car. This means that IAQ is an important factor when it comes to human health. Millions of people who have administrative professions consider their workplaces to be low-hazard environments. But it is anticipated that climate change will increase the number of hazards found in these workplaces, contributing to adverse health effects. For example, increased levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere will translate into higher levels of carbon dioxide in the workplace, leading to more headaches, fatigue, and lethargy. Warmer temperatures outside will increase the amount of pollen and allergens moved through buildings’ HVAC systems, resulting in a rise in allergic reactions and respiratory issues. Lastly, extreme weather events such as flash flooding and hurricanes often cause water damage, which leads to increased mold growth in buildings, creating additional health concerns for occupants. OEHS professionals play a vital role in ensuring that HVAC systems are up to date and maintained, and that filter change-out schedules set by the manufacturer are being followed. ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 62.1, Ventilation and Acceptable Indoor Air Quality, and ASHRAE’s position document on indoor carbon dioxide (PDF) provide useful information on mitigating IAQ issues. A related concern is that combustion-producing products like gas-fired water heaters and ovens in older buildings release particulate matter into indoor work environments. Upgrading to more efficient heating systems will improve air quality overall. Current industry movements for healthier IAQ include potential bans from the Consumer Product Safety Commission on gas stoves and water heaters. California has already implemented a ban on all manufacturing of gas stoves and water heaters by 2030. Support for clean air standards will ultimately improve IAQ since outdoor air quality typically mirrors indoor air quality. OEHS professionals should continue to work with engineers and building designers to ensure that our health and safety knowledge is being incorporated into any new or future buildings to help protect workers. Several private companies are now developing tools that incorporate IAQ into comprehensive, whole-building design and are proposing to install permanent IAQ monitors in buildings to help people understand the daily air quality in workspaces. An example of a free tool that can be used to monitor outdoor air quality and the level of particulate matter within the U.S. is currently available from EPA. SEVERE WEATHER Climate change is also contributing to increased severity of physical threats. Extreme weather events, such as drenching rains, parching droughts, and scorching heat waves, are expected to grow in intensity because of global climate change, and nowhere on the planet is sheltered from all weather hazards. In addition to presenting direct safety hazards to employees, events like severe storms or extreme heat can also affect how people “show up” to work in the weeks and months during recovery from these often shocking and scary experiences. Recognizing extreme weather events as workplace hazards allows organizations to prepare and train for their occurrence, which provides confidence and a sense of control to employees who live through them. Preparation and training can save lives as well as minimize the mental health strain to employees in the wake of an event. One example of severe weather is hurricanes, which have been growing in strength for years. This trend is expected to continue, bringing powerful winds, flooding rains, and storm surge to vulnerable areas. Fortunately, hurricanes lend themselves well to emergency planning, as locations usually have three to five days’ notice and accurate predictions of the impacts prior to the storm’s arrival. Incorporating hurricanes and other severe weather events into organizational emergency action plans, as required under the relevant OSHA occupational safety and health standard (29 Code of Federal Regulations 1910.38) and safety and health regulation (29 CFR 1926.35), is a great way for OEHS professionals to document the necessary preparation and response actions for their organizations. A recent example demonstrates how failing to plan is planning to fail. In 2020, the arrival of Category 4 Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, Louisiana, led to a large fire and toxic gas release at a chemical facility. The incident occurred after the facility’s roof was damaged, allowing rainwater to contact water-reactive chemicals. The fire and toxic gas release destroyed parts of the facility, closed the local interstate for several days, and necessitated hundreds of nearby residents to shelter in place. An investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board cited inadequate extreme weather preparation and poor emergency preparedness and response as root causes of the incident. EPA recently amended its risk management program rule to increase protections for communities like Lake Charles. The Safer Communities by Chemical Accident Prevention Rule requires high-risk chemical facilities to increase their planning and transparency around emergency preparedness and opens them to third-party audits in specific circumstances. However, planning alone is not sufficient. Organizations must exercise these plans with employees to test the plans’ effectiveness and to ensure that everyone is aware of their responsibilities. Model organizations also incorporate local first responders during preparation and training activities; this helps ensure responders’ familiarity with the facilities and can help organizations understand the limitations of emergency services during severe weather events. PSYCHOSOCIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACTS Another hazard category for which the effects of climate change are already apparent is psychological hazards. A 2023 report (PDF) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes a “very high confidence” that climate-related hazards and associated risks will lead to an increase in mental health hazards in the near term. And according to a 2018 International Journal of Mental Health Systems article that explores the relationship between climate change and mental health, discussion of mental health is gaining momentum. The authors state that “[s]ince 2007, media reports on climate change and health have increased by 78 [percent] and the academic literature on climate and health issues has tripled.” While “climate anxiety” and “eco-anxiety” are now commonly used phrases in mental health discussions, solutions for mitigating these anxieties are less obvious. OEHS professionals, whose role involves ensuring the well-being of workers, are anticipated to help navigate the complexity of psychological impacts of climate change on the workforce. Heightened stress and anxiety among workers brought on by changing environmental conditions is one of the primary psychological impacts of climate change. For example, workers may worry that safety could be compromised due to changing weather patterns. Extreme heat events, wildfires, and natural disasters pose immediate threats to physical health but can also trigger depression, long-term psychological distress, and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Studies have increasingly linked droughts with farmer suicides and increased ambient temperatures have been connected with increased levels of violence. Economic anxieties, such as the fear of job loss due to economic shifts, are another concern. Vulnerable populations, including low-income workers, women, and aging workers—especially people in less stable working conditions—will bear a disproportionate burden of both the physical and psychological impacts of climate change. Climate change will exacerbate existing mental health disparities, and OEHS professionals must recognize the intersectionality of climate change, work environments, and mental health. Acknowledging that employees may experience emotional distress related to their ecological awareness requires understanding of how eco-anxiety may manifest in occupational settings. OEHS professionals can help advocate for accessible and culturally competent mental health resources that effectively support diverse groups of workers. SOLVING A COMPLEX PROBLEM Although climate change is a challenge, it is also an opportunity for OEHS professionals to use our collective expertise. As the profession is a global network of highly skilled subject matter experts, we encourage you to initiate and maintain open lines of communication with other professionals within and adjacent to OEHS. Issues like Lyme disease and wildfires that previously affected certain areas are already beginning to spread to additional regions. Having an established network to discover best practices and lessons learned from these situations will ensure that OEHS professionals are effectively mitigating risks and protecting workers. Many workplaces already have written and established guides for biological hazards, emergency action plans for extreme weather events or wildfires, and employee assistance programs, which provide resources that can help with mental health issues like eco-anxiety. Remember: these existing frameworks, guidelines, and tools can be adapted to specific workplaces to address the issues posed by climate change. Solving complex problems is a core capability of OEHS professionals. Climate change may seem overwhelming, but at its core it’s a complex problem to be addressed. Each of us will encounter pieces of the climate change problem in our workplaces, and by working together, seeking solutions, and drawing on existing resources, we can effectively create a safer, healthier future for all. SADIE DAFFER, CIH, CSP, is the industrial hygiene program manager for the U.S. Army Public Health Command in Stuttgart, Germany. She also serves on AIHA’s Climate Change Adaptation Task Force. DOUG FALLON, MSPH, CIH, CSP, is senior Certified Industrial Hygienist with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Office of Occupational Safety and Health in Washington, D.C. Send feedback to The Synergist. settaphan/Getty Images
ASHRAE: “ASHRAE Position Document on Indoor Carbon Dioxide” (PDF, 2022).
ASHRAE: “Standards 62.1 & 62.2.”
California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment: “2022 Report: Indicators of Climate Change in California” (2022).
EPA: “Risk Management Program Safer Communities by Chemical Accident Prevention Final Rule” (2024).
Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: “Mental Health Effects of Climate Change” (April 2015).
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers” (PDF, 2023).
International Journal of Mental Health Systems: “Climate Change and Mental Health: Risks, Impacts and Priority Actions” (June 2018).
LegiScan: California Senate Bill 967, “University of California: Pilot Project: Dust Forecast and Warning System: Imperial County and Coachella Valley” (2024).
National Integrated Heat Health Information System.
Nature: “Valley Fever Is a Growing Fungal Threat to Outdoor Workers” (September 2023).
OSHA: “Reducing the Risk of Worker Exposure to Disease-Carrying Ticks” (PDF, 2022).
OSHA: “Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis).”
U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit.
U.S. Global Change Research Program: Fifth National Climate Assessment (2023).
VELUX Group: “Future Generations Face Health Risks from Life Indoors” (2018).
Wellcome: “Explained: How Climate Change Affects Mental Health” (November 2023).
World Health Organization: “Why Mental Health Is a Priority for Action on Climate Change” (June 2022).