Red Alert: How We Can Help the Millions of Workers Who Toil in Searing Heat

Many workers in Asia and the Pacific work in life-threatening heat.
Many workers in Asia and the Pacific work in life-threatening heat.

By Sameer Khatiwada

Global warming will drastically alter labor markets, affecting health and productivity, particularly for outdoor workers in agriculture, construction, and manufacturing. By 2050, climate-induced heat stress could force significant changes in job structures and labor demand, highlighting a pressing need for adaptive policies.

As heat soars above 35 degrees in areas across Asia and the Pacific, millions of people who work outside face a challenging work environment. Increasing global temperatures will impact them the most.  

The health, livelihood and labor market impacts of extreme heat are likely to be substantial, as shown by the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2023-24. It shows that  by 2050, more than 200 million people globally are likely to migrate internally (within-country) in the face of climate stress.

Heat stress is a growing concern in the context of climate change, which is projected to increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves and extreme heat events. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global mean surface temperature is likely to rise by 1.5°C to 4.5°C by the end of the 21st century, depending on the emission scenario. This will increase the number of people exposed to heat stress and the severity of its impacts.

Heat stress is a condition that occurs when the body is unable to maintain its normal temperature and dissipate excess heat. It can result from exposure to high ambient temperatures, high humidity, direct solar radiation, or physical exertion. Heat stress can impair cognitive and physical performance, increase the risk of heat-related illnesses and injuries, and reduce well-being and quality of life.

Heat stress is a major occupational health hazard, especially for workers in sectors such as agriculture, construction, and labor-intensive manufacturing, where they are exposed to hot and humid environments and perform physically demanding tasks. They have no choice but to work outside.

According to the International Labour Organization, heat stress is projected to reduce total working hours worldwide by 2.2% by 2030, either because it is too hot to work, or because workers have to work at a slower pace. This is a loss of 80 million full-time jobs by 2030. This is a conservative projection because it assumes that long-term increase in global mean temperature will not exceed 1.5 degrees, and that agriculture and construction work is carried out in the shade.

 Economic losses due to heat stress at work were estimated at $280 billion in 1995, according to the ILO. This figure is now projected to increase to $2.4 trillion in 2030 (which is 2.4% of global GDP in 2022). The impact of heat stress is most pronounced in lower middle and low-income countries.

South Asia could see productivity losses of up to 5%. This is especially challenging in countries with high shares of informal employment, where workers lack basic social protection and where working poverty is prevalent. Excessive heat levels could exacerbate inequality between workers, particularly between blue-collar workers and white collar workers.

Heat stress is projected to reduce total working hours worldwide by 2.2% by 2030, resulting in a loss of 80 million full-time jobs.

How does heat stress impact labor markets?

Reduced productivity and income: Heat stress can lower the output and efficiency of workers, especially in physically demanding sectors such as agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and mining. This can lead to lower wages and earnings for workers and lower profits for employers. According to a study by the World Bank, heat stress could reduce global labor capacity by 10% by 2050, with losses concentrated in low- and middle-income countries.

Increased occupational health risks: Heat stress can cause dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even death for workers exposed to high temperatures. It can also exacerbate existing health conditions, such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Heat stress can increase the risk of accidents and injuries at work, as well as absenteeism and turnover.  According to the ILO, more than 1.2 million deaths per year are attributable to occupational heat exposure.

Shifts in labor demand and supply: Heat stress can alter the demand and supply of labor across sectors and regions. Some sectors may experience a decline in labor demand due to lower productivity and profitability, while others may see an increase in demand due to adaptation and mitigation efforts. For example, the demand for renewable energy and cooling technologies may rise, while the demand for outdoor activities and tourism may fall.

Similarly, some regions may face a surplus or a shortage of labor due to migration, displacement, or urbanization. For example, some rural areas may lose workers who move to cooler or less affected areas, while some urban areas may gain workers who seek better opportunities and services.

How can policy interventions make a difference?

The ILO has prepared “Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all” that provide practical solutions on how to design, implement and monitor policies to tackle labor impact of climate change. As a starter, it is important to conduct assessment of occupational safety and health (OSH) risks that result from climate change. ILO’s Occupational Safety and Health Convention No. 155  promotes policy framework for managing extreme heat at workplaces.

Governments will need to focus on sectors that are likely to be most impacted by excessive heat levels, namely agriculture, construction, labor intensive manufacturing, mining, and low-value services.

In agriculture, green economic transformation of rural economies will be critical so that fewer agricultural workers are exposed to high temperatures. Other policy measures include skills development aimed at agriculture sector so that existing workers can enter occupations that require analytical and higher order skills using ICT and other new technology.

Similarly, in construction, mining and manufacturing sector, enhanced information about on-site weather conditions is important. Adaptation of workwear and safety equipment, and technological improvements can make it easier for workers and their employers to endure higher temperatures. Working hours might need to be adjust to account for increasing frequency of higher heat levels.

Services sectors like wholesale and retail trade will also be impacted by increasing heat levels. Many of these jobs might actually disappear with excess heat. Governments can provide dedicated space under shade for street vendors and food stall operators.

 Well-designed social protection measures can make a difference in helping workers protect themselves from detrimental effects of heat stress on their income. Social protection measures linked to skills development can help workers transition into occupations and sectors that require less exposure to heat. Lack of adequate fiscal space is always a challenge, hence it will be important to design measures that are sustainable in the long run and do not burden the public purse.

Lastly, mitigation measures are critical in the medium to long run to reduce heat-related hazards in the world of work. Policy measures to help workers currently at the risk of heat stress need to go hand in hand with government efforts to decarbonize.

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