NRDC Report: How climate crisis threatens worker health and safety, both outdoors and inside

A new report warns that the health and safety of workers across the country, both indoors and outdoors, is increasingly at risk from excessive heat, increasing air and water pollution, spreading infectious diseases, extreme weather, challenges to their mental health and other impacts from climate change, according KTNV.

The report is among the first to warn that climate change poses a serious health threat to people working at indoor jobs, such as airline flight attendants, warehouse workers, home health care workers and teachers.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic is adding another layer of danger to essential workers because many also are threatened by climate change.

The report, “On the Front Lines: Climate Change Threatens the Health of America’s Workers” was released today by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), the BlueGreen Alliance and several labor organizations. It includes 14 first-hand stories from outdoor and indoor workers impacted by climate change.

“The climate crisis isn’t just endangering the health and safety of outdoor workers, it’s also a serious threat to indoor workers. Janitors, bus drivers, public health workers, and others deemed essential in the pandemic, are on the frontlines of harm,” said Juanita Constible, principal author of the report and a climate health expert at NRDC. “This dual public health crisis demands that our country ramp up more robust health protections for workers now. The good news is that protecting worker health from the impacts of the climate crisis is fully within our grasp—but it will get harder the longer we wait to act.”

Among workers potentially at risk from climate change and COVID-19 are wildland firefighters already battling an active fire season in the West; public health nurses currently conducting outdoor COVID-19 tests;  migrant workers engaged in flood and hurricane recovery; and teachers who may return to in-person education this fall in schools lacking air conditioning.

In addition, Black people, Latinx and other people of color who are experiencing the highest numbers of deaths from COVID-19 are more likely to work in essential industries and jobs than white people.

The report notes that in addition to putting the health and safety of workers across the country at risk, climate change is causing economic devastation to communities. Disasters can slash take-home pay by shuttering businesses, disrupting commuting routes, and reducing the number of hours and days during which people can safely work.

To address these problems, the report calls for federal legislation and action by federal agencies to put a high priority on improving health protections for workers. Sadly, rapid changes in the climate and recent rollbacks in occupational safeguards are leaving state and federal agencies unable to hold employers accountable for dangerous and unhealthy workplaces, the report states.

Among key recommendations, the report calls for:

  • Strengthening the role of unions and other worker organizations to ensure workers are full partners in the effort to protect their health and safety from climate change.
  • Building a better system to track, analyze, and quickly act on existing and emerging health and safety threats to workers.
  • Amending the Occupational Safety and Health Act to ensure state and local public sector workers are protected in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all island territories.
  • Ensuring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has enough budget and staffing for timely and effective enforcement.
  • Creating policies and programs to help professionalize disaster responseand recovery across multiple sectors, including through job creation and training programs and climate information support to labor unions and employers.
  • The Department of Labor developing a planto address the cumulative health and safety threats of climate change to workers.
  • OSHA establishing an enforceable federal heat health standard protecting all workers.

The report’s first-hand accounts include stories from a fiber-optic technician and a laundry worker in Florida; a nurse and a janitor in Pennsylvania; a home health care worker, a hospital cook, a splicing technician, and a telephone line technician in California; a garment sewer in North Carolina; a union staffer in Puerto Rico; a health care worker in Texas; a service representative in Georgia; and a school bus owner/operator in Louisiana.