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Climate Change and Labor

by Mary Nickum

May 1, 2024

Has climate change affected labor? The answer is, unequivocally, yes. From temperature to storms and weather, in general, labor is affected. In this article, I will explore the various aspects of weather and its ramifications on labor.

In 2020, 55 fatal work injuries occurred where the primary or secondary source was weather and atmospheric conditions. Most of these deaths have weather and atmospheric conditions as the secondary source. Primary source refers to the object, substance, exposure, or bodily motion responsible for a death. The secondary source refers to the object, substance, or person (if any) that generated the primary source or contributed to the event. Weather, at this point, is considered a secondary source. The primary source will be the employer who requires the employee to work to the point of heat exhaustion then heat stroke (3 ways...Oct 19, 2023).


Some occupations pose more climate-related health risks for workers than others. Millions of U.S. workers are exposed to heat in their workplaces. Although illness from exposure to heat is preventable, every year, thousands become sick from occupational heat exposure, and some cases are fatal. For example, outdoor workers and indoor workers who engage in heavy physical labor and are exposed to high temperatures are more likely to suffer from heat-related illnesses and deaths. Some research studies have found agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting, and construction workers experience the highest rates of heat-related mortality.


Heat-related Illness

In a warm environment, especially when physically active, the human body relies on its ability to get rid of excess heat, known as heat dissipation, to maintain a healthy internal body temperature. Heat dissipation happens naturally through sweating and increased blood flow to the skin. Workers cool down more rapidly if the external, environmental, heat and physical activity, metabolic heat are reduced. If heat dissipation does not happen fast enough, the internal body temperature keeps rising and the worker may experience symptoms that include thirst, irritability, a rash, cramping, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke.

During extremely hot and humid weather, the body’s ability to cool itself is challenged. When the body heats too rapidly and is unable to cool itself properly, or when too much fluid or salt is lost through dehydration or sweating, body temperature rises and one may experience a heat-related illness. It is important to know the symptoms of excessive heat exposure and the appropriate responses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a list of warning signs and symptoms of heat illness, and recommended first aid steps.

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are both types of hyperthermia (What is heatstroke? 2024). Heat exhaustion can develop into heatstroke if left untreated; but heat exhaustion is not as severe as heatstroke, doesn’t cause neurological problems and usually isn’t life-threatening.

Heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness. Heatstroke occurs when the body can’t cool itself. The hypothalamus (a part of the brain that controls many bodily functions) sets the core body temperature. It typically sets the normal temperature at about 98.6o F (37o C); but if one’s body takes in more heat than it releases, the internal temperature rises above this set-point.



Not only heat is dangerous to outdoor workers, cold can be too. Cold temperatures and increased wind speed (wind chill) cause heat to leave the body more quickly, putting workers at risk of cold stress. Anyone working in the cold may be at risk, including workers in freezers, construction, outdoor agriculture and forestry (Table 1; Keeping Outdoor Workers Safe... 2024; Winter weather safety 2023).


Since 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 436 people have died as a result of workplace heat exposure, with an annual average of 38 deaths between 2011 and 2019. In addition, an average of 2,700 cases involving heat illnesses lead to days lost at work, putting an additional economic burden on workers and employers. Statistics show people who work in conditions without adequate climate-control face higher risks of hazardous heat exposure and these situations disproportionately expose people of color to hazardous heat (Workplace deaths June 03, 2022).  

“The three-year average of workplace deaths caused by heat has doubled since the early 1990s. These extreme heat hazards are not limited to outdoor occupations, the seasons or geography. From farm workers in California to construction workers in Texas and warehouse workers in Pennsylvania, heat illness, exacerbated by the rising temperatures of our climate presents a growing hazard for millions of workers,” reported Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh.



When it is too hot, people work less effectively out-of-doors, in factories, the office or on the move because of a diminished ability for physical exertion and for completing of mental tasks. There is a statistically significant negative relationship between temperature and labor productivity (Yildirim et al. 2009). Heat extremes also increase accident risk and expose people to serious heat-related health risks including heat stroke, severe dehydration and exhaustion, while a body temperature above 105o F (40.6º C) is life-threatening.

Most national climate or employment policies do not address the impact of climate change on health and productivity in the workplace, Workers and employers need protection now and measures to manage risks to health, income and output do exist, but often entail costs and may compound challenges as in the case of air conditioning, a costly and energy and emissions intensive response. Risks become increasingly less manageable and costly to deal with at higher levels of warming, as even 34.7o F (1.5 º C) of warming entails substantial increased heat and workplace impacts that should be a strong incentive for ambitious action to reduce emissions and limit warming.


From this information sketch, we can see, temperature is a key element in the Global Climate Change growing disaster. The temperature increase limit of 1.5º C was agreed upon by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC prepares comprehensive Assessment Reports about the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for reducing the rate at which climate change is taking place. This panel has an important task but they are not a regulatory group. Governments accept this information and “suggested” alterations to their submissions voluntarily. The US Department of Labor tracks the problems associated with this element. The Environmental Protection Agency tracks this element and has enforcement capability but is hampered by the capitalist administrations.


Storms and Other Adverse Weather Conditions

Outdoor workers have learned over many generations how to accommodate the weather in their daily working lives. Farmers have it down to an art. They read the clouds and other signs for plowing, planting and harvesting, With experience, reading the signs of weather, clouds, sun-dogs, changes in wind direction, humidity give the farmer much information; even the over-head migration of flocks of birds are a sure sign of impending season and, thus, weather changes.

Now, it is different. Many of the signs are still there but harder to read and much less dependable. The changes that used to signal the coming of a thunderstorm now may bring damaging winds, tornadoes and heavy rains. Rains have been measured in 4-6 inches in an hour. Tornadoes appear in areas such as northern Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota. They’re even happening in Great Britain and northern Europe.



Storms are natural weather events that have become larger, heavier and more violent. Whether they are wind events such as tornadoes, blizzards or heavy rains, they have become harder for outdoor laborers with which to contend.

High winds, freezing rain or sleet, heavy snowfall, and dangerously cold temperatures are the main hazards associated with winter storms. Impassable snow drifts often maroon people at home without utilities or other services for days after an event. Heavy snowfall and blizzards easily trap motorists in their vehicles and make walking to find help a deadly effort. Severely cold temperatures and wind chills during and after a winter storm can lead to hypothermia and kill anyone caught outside for too long. The aftermath of a winter storm can impact a community or region for days, weeks or even months, incurring steep economic costs.

Icy and wet surfaces make even the most cautious worker vulnerable to falls. Injuries, such as sprained joints, broken bones and strained backs can create challenging emergency situations for workers and emergency responders. Frostbite can cause serious and permanent damage to skin, tissue and nerves. Extremities, face and ears are the most vulnerable areas of the body for frostbite injury and additional precautions must be taken to guard against damage.

As during any season, sudden weather disturbances and dangerous conditions can happen throughout winter. Snow and ice storms not only endanger outdoor workers, they can create driving hazards, property damage and hurdles for emergency responders.


Increasing extreme weather events or natural disasters include floods, landslides, storms, lightning, droughts, and wildfires. These events contribute to occupational deaths, injuries, diseases, and stress. Workers involved in rescue, cleanup, and restoration are exposed to hazardous conditions both during and after extreme weather events.

In today’s age of increased intensity, duration, and sheer quantity of tropical storms, several measures of historical Atlantic hurricane activity, including annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes, as well as hurricane intensities, power dissipation index (PDI), and rapid intensification occurrence, all show pronounced increases since around 1980. Going further back, since the 1940s and 50s, major hurricane annual counts and related measures have shown pronounced variations over several decades.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found trends since 1980 appear to show the latest upswing in a series of multi-decadal variations (Fig.1), leaving open the question of what caused these multiple decade swings. They posit two leading candidates for causing this pronounced multi-decadal variability in Atlantic basin-wide hurricane activity and related measures since about 1950 are temporary changes in human aerosols and internal climate variability associated with Atlantic Ocean circulation changes.

Natural disasters are expected to increase reported direct losses from the current $195 billion a year to $234 billion a year by 2040. This increase of $39 billion could reach up to $100 billion per year if indirect costs from supply chain disruptions and other knock-on economic consequences are taken into account (Barattieri et al. 2023). In responding to the growing number of wildfires associated with climate change, firefighters, health care workers, and other emergency responders are exposed to air pollutants,


disproportionately,  which are connected to allergies, respiratory illnesses, heart diseases, and other chronic and acute illnesses. Extreme weather events pose health and safety risks to rescue and recovery workers and may increase exposure to environmental contaminants and water-borne and food-borne diseases. People who work outdoors, in water and sanitation-related occupations, agriculture, with animals, or in the natural environment are particularly susceptible to the infection, transmission of, and spread of vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease. Agricultural workers are especially susceptible to exposure and absorption of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, which have been associated with adverse health outcomes, including death.

The World Economic Forum sums it and adds these predictions. Extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes will damage business assets, transport routes and industrial and agricultural infrastructure leading to job losses. Climate change-related events cost the global economy $313 billion in 2022, which is 4 percent above the 21st-century average.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics provides a bleak projection if we don’t take action. Without global mitigation, an increase in extreme heat is projected to have a large negative impact on U.S. labor hours, especially for outdoor labor industries. In 2100, over 1.8 billion labor hours across the workforce are projected to be lost related to unsuitable working conditions (95 percent confidence interval of 1.2-2.4 billion). These lost hours would be costly, totaling over $170 billion in lost wages in 2100 (95 percent confidence interval of $110-$220 billion). The majority of the country is projected to experience decreases in labor hours resulting from extreme temperature effects. In 2100, parts of the Southwest and Florida are estimated to experience a decrease in hours worked for high-risk industries ranging from -5 percent to -7 percent. Although the impacts vary by region, only a limited number of counties are projected to experience increases in labor hours.

Air Pollution and Emissions

Climate change is, in a large part, the effect of emissions of carbon into the atmosphere by petroleum based vehicles. Let’s take a look at emissions from automobiles, planes and trains (Fig.2). We’ve long understood mass transportation is our savior. The emission statistics show us an interesting reality to that understanding (Air pollution 2024).

Trains are particularly low-carbon ways to travel. Taking a train instead of a car for medium-length distances would cut your emissions by around 80%. Using a train instead of a domestic flight would reduce your emissions by around 86%.


The Environmental Protection Agency states the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector in the United States is Transportation (28% of 2021 greenhouse gas emissions) – The transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation come primarily from burning fossil fuel for our cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes. Over 94% of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum based, which includes mostly gasoline and diesel.


The largest sources of transportation greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 were light-duty trucks, which include sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, and minivans (37%); medium- and heavy-duty trucks (23%); passenger cars (21%); commercial aircraft (7%); other aircraft (2%); pipelines (4%); ships and boats (3%); and rail (2%) (Fast Facts : U.S. Transportation Sector Greenhouse Gas Emissions 1990 –2021). According to all the above numbers, rail is by far the most efficient in emissions, so what are we waiting for?


What Is Being Done?

Almost nothing. There are localities who are concerned, student groups who are alarmed, religious groups, who want to help, all of which mean well and can be of help; but we need an overall plan to mitigate climate change. The Socialist Party USA is concerned on several fronts, especially Ecosocialism and labor. Something that could be done is non-essential outdoor work, which is much of it, be sharply curtailed when these indicators move into the danger zone. Now, much of the highway work is done at night to accommodate daytime commuters, inadvertently aiding the outdoor workers, as well.

Changes to the world use of fossil fuels must be decided upon by countries around the world and there must be incentives to help hold them to the agreements. We’ve had agreements before and seen the targets fall away and be disregarded. The US is one of those countries. I pose, in our case, it is capitalism at work. There is no immediate money to be made in providing all workers with new, sub-freezing weather gear; building ever larger and more sophisticated vehicles and machines to clear highways, erecting walls to prevent flooding, and more needing to be done to help populations in the near future.

Capitalism, by its materialistic nature forbids consideration of the necessary move away from fossil fuels in favor of the use of renewable resources. Big money is invested and much more gained from continuing to pump and/or mine the fossil fuels. We all can see this but how many are willing to do without our gas-fueled cars, furnaces, cooking stoves and everything we have that are fossil fuel dependent? Capitalism feeds on denial. As a nation, we are deniers. Of course, not all of us; but how can we, the minority, make a difference? That is the hard part.


How did gasoline and countless other petroleum products become so central to our notions of the American way of life? Huber (2013) traces the answer from the 1930s through the oil shocks of the 1970s to our present predicament, revealing that the role of oil in defining popular culture extends far beyond material connections between oil, suburbia, and the automobile. He shows how oil powered a cultural politics of entrepreneurial life—the very American idea that life itself is a product of individual entrepreneurial capacities. In so doing, he uses oil to retell American political history from the triumph of New Deal liberalism to the rise of the New Right, from celebration of oil as the lifeblood of postwar capitalism to increasing anxieties over oil addiction.

In a 2022 book by the same author, he states the climate crisis is not primarily a problem of ‘believing science’ or individual ‘carbon footprints’—it is a class problem rooted in who owns, controls and profits from material production. As such, it will take a class struggle to solve. In this ground breaking class analysis, Huber argues the carbon-intensive capitalist class must be confronted for producing climate change; yet, the narrow and unpopular roots of climate politics in the professional class are not capable of building a movement up to this challenge. For an alternative strategy, he proposes climate politics that appeals to the vast majority of society: the working class. Huber evaluates the Green New Deal as a first attempt to channel working class material and ecological interests and advocates building union power in the very energy system we need to dramatically transform. In the end, as in classical socialist movements of the early 20th Century, winning the climate struggle will need to be internationalist based on a form of planetary working class solidarity.

The list of book titles regarding climate change and what we must do about it abounds. The questions are: Are these books being read? If so, are they having an impact on the readers? If so, what are the readers doing about it? I see that Huber’s books in Best Sellers Rank: #357,639 in Books and #363,731, nowhere near, the top 100 books on Amazon. The books are being read by a reasonable number of people but whether or not they or many more books on the same general topics will spur the populace to elect legislators willing to buck Big Business (capitalism) is the question of the time. The Socialist Party USA has selected candidates for President and Vice President. These candidates have put forward their agenda for the administration they will hold if elected. This is a start.

According to scientists, agencies’ statistics and other environmental organizations, we don’t have the time to watch. “Wait and see” is not an option. We must act now. We can begin by electing responsible legislators on the State and Federal level who are willing to act on behalf of the climate and the people who depend on it. It is absolutely imperative.




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