A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reveals the devastating effects of climate change on the health of American workers. It warns that both indoor and outdoor workers will suffer from the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme heat, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, drought, and infectious diseases.
“Protecting workers from climate change is entirely within our grasp,” Juanita Constible, Senior Advocate at the NRDC and Co-author of the report, tells Food Tank. “But [it] will get harder the longer we wait.”
The report, “On the Front Lines: Climate Change Threatens the Health of America’s Workers,” includes 14 personal stories from workers across the United States. Spotlighting their experiences, the stories describe how climate change threatens workers’ jobs, health, and ability to care for their families.
“When we embarked on this project, we didn’t expect to be talking about grade school teachers or flight attendants,” Constible says, “I’m hoping the stories will convey the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis in a way that science alone sometimes can’t.”
The report details the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires across the U.S. It also explains that as temperatures rise, more Americans will work in extreme heat. These conditions make workers more susceptible to muscle cramps, vomiting, heart attacks, and heatstroke. They also increase the risk of occupational injuries by compromising balance, motor control, and vision.
Farmworkers and construction workers, who often wear heat-trapping protective clothing and operate heavy machinery, will be especially exposed to extreme heat.
Insect-transmitted diseases will likely increase as well, the report warns. Climate change allows disease-carrying agents like ticks and mosquitoes to spread farther, live longer, and reproduce more. This puts outdoor workers, including farmworkers, at greater risk of contracting diseases such as West Nile virus, Zika virus, Lyme disease, dengue fever, and more.
These trends are anticipated to threaten the economic stability of workers by reducing work hours and take-home pay, and by increasing rates of houselessness and work-related injuries. This will disproportionately impact Black and Latinx workers, who are overrepresented in occupations threatened by climate change, according to the report.
To mitigate these effects, the report lays out several recommendations. For one, Congress can update the Occupational Health and Safety Act. A law drafted in the 1970s to protect workers’ health, the Act does not yet address climate change-related risks and does not cover state- and local-level public-sector workers. In addition, the report recommends that Congress expand the budget and staffing of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to better enforce safety policies.
Constible argues that the Senate should also pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Passed by the House earlier this year, the PRO Act would impose penalties on employers who use intimidation tactics to subdue striking and unionizing workers. Stronger legal support for collective action, she says, would help workers advocate for their health and safety in increasingly risky environments.
Constible encourages voters to put pressure on their representatives to prioritize worker safety in the face of climate change.
“Most decision-makers simply aren’t thinking about the intersection between climate change and worker health and safety,” Constible tells Food Tank. “Voters will need to keep demanding action.”
Photo Courtesy of Unsplash, Marcus Kauffman