Jobs and the Future of Work

70% of workers are at risk of climate-related health hazards, says the ILO

Smoke rising towards the sky from the chimneys of a paper mill in Sweden.

Excess heat causes 18,970 work-related deaths annually, according to the ILO. Image: Unsplash/Daniel Moqvist

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Health and Healthcare

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • The global workforce is facing a serious health crisis due to the negative impacts of climate change.
  • The climate crisis could expose 2.4 billion workers to health hazards like cancer, cardiovascular illness, kidney dysfunction and physical injury, says a new ILO report.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Quantifying the Impact of Climate Change on Human Health report forecasts how the climate crisis will impact the global health landscape over the next 20 years.

Around 2.4 billion workers globally are likely to be exposed to health hazards like cancer, cardiovascular illness, kidney dysfunction and physical injury as a result of climate change, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The report, called Ensuring Safety and Health at Work in a Changing Climate, says excessive heat affects 70% of the global workforce of 3.4 billion people, causing 18,970 work-related deaths and around 23 million workplace injuries annually.

Have you read?

Pregnant women working in heat extremes face twice the risk of miscarriages and stillbirths, and face an increased risk of bearing babies with low birth weight, a 2024 study published in the National Library of Medicine shows.

Factors which increase heat-stress risks
Factors like workplace clothing and humidity exacerbate climate-related heat stress risks. Image: ILO

A deadly crisis

Exposure to extreme heat and other impacts of the intensifying climate crisis form what the report calls a “cocktail of hazards'' resulting in premature death or potentially serious health consequences.

These include:

  • 1.6 billion workers exposed to UV radiation, causing more than 18,960 work-related deaths from skin cancer annually.
  • 1.6 billion workers breathing polluted workplace air, resulting in up to 860,000 work-related deaths of outdoor workers each year.
  • More than 870 million agricultural workers in contact with dangerous pesticides, causing more than 300,000 deaths annually from pesticide poisoning.
  • 15,000 work-related deaths each year due to parasitic and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria.

What is the Forum doing about keeping workers well?

A global health challenge

Looking ahead, the World Economic Forum’s Quantifying the Impact of Climate Change on Human Health report forecasts how the climate crisis will impact the global health landscape over the next 20 years.

Growing threats like new pathogens, pollution and extreme weather events could amplify today’s health challenges, while exacerbating inequalities that adversely impact vulnerable communities.

Projection of health outcomes triggered by climate events, cumulative
The climate crisis could cause 14.5 million deaths worldwide by mid-century. Image: World Economic Forum

The intensifying climate crisis looks set to place immense strain on global healthcare systems, causing 14.5 million deaths and $12.5 trillion in economic losses by 2050, the report says.

Breaking that down, as extreme weather-related events increase in frequency and intensity, floods are expected to claim 8.5 million lives worldwide, with the Asia Pacific region suffering the highest death toll due to heavily populated at-risk coastal communities and the prospect of higher levels or rainfall.

Droughts are expected to claim approximately 3.2 million lives worldwide, with the long-term effects of disease and related deaths a major driver.

The report also predicts: an estimated 1.6 million deaths from heat waves, with people aged 65 and over hardest hit by prolonged temperature extremes; half a million deaths from extreme tropical storms; and an additional 300,000 loss of life from wildfire spread.

Healthy workforces

So, what can be done to mitigate the impact of the climate crisis on workplace global health?

The obvious answer is to stop burning fossil fuels. Global emissions must reduce by at least 28-42% by 2030, compared to current scenarios, to keep the planet on-track for 1.5C or 2C above pre-industrial temperatures, says the UN Environment Programme.

While there is still time to rein in global emissions, there is no quick fix.

Part of the challenge lies in raising awareness of the health hazards people face, motivating stakeholders to act by adopting workplace best practices and encouraging greater investment and policy measures to protect peoples’ health.

By sharing insights, stakeholders can adopt and implement evidence-based best practices to promote employee wellbeing and realize a more productive, resilient and healthy global workforce.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkHealth and Healthcare SystemsClimate Action
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