Climate change adding to workplace health and safety risks

Climate change is a growing workplace risk and can lead to accidents and even death. Unions need the clear right to bargain around climate change and its impacts on workers.

These are among the findings of a new report involving the United Workers Union (UWU) and written by researchers at the UTS Climate Justice Research Centre.

They state: “Almost half of the global population are now exposed to high heat episodes, including more than one billion workers. Where high heat is not managed appropriately the consequences include serious illness, adverse pregnancy outcomes, negative mental health impacts, and death.”

Researchers interviewed UWU members working in jobs as varied as teacher’s aides, machine operators, warehouse workers, home carers, cleaners, firefighters, market researchers, veterinary nurses, horticulturalists, chefs, early childhood educators, paramedics, security and custodial workers.

Many reported that existing cooling controls in their workplaces do not work properly, are broken, are ineffective in high temperatures, or are available only for customers and not staff.

Fatigue

Among the symptoms of heat stress that members reported were fatigue (77.6 per cent); headache (59.9 per cent); poor concentration (50.1 per cent); and nausea and dizziness (36.8 per cent).

Shockingly, some workers had experienced or witnessed a range of serious incidents at work, including passing out, seizures, stress, hospitalisation and death.

As one worker put it: “It’s quite terrible … you drink way more water, so you’re forced off the line, which puts pressure on you to work harder, which makes you sweat more and then tires you out.

“Essentially, it’s just an all-round lose situation because you’re hot, overheated, stressed and incredibly sweaty.”

Researchers found that although some employers provided cold water, ice blocks and PPE, many did not. “Workers interviewed say they often have to bring their own supplies to work.”

Profits

The report shows management dragging their feet over the issue, putting profits before health. The researchers report: “In workplaces that have heat policies, some members say it is impossible to get management to act in accordance with them.”

In 2019 we saw another example of the impact of climate change on workplaces, when massive bushfires produced toxic smoke that blanketed Sydney and Canberra for days. Workers at ports and construction sites stopped work as a result of the hazardous conditions.

But researchers note that current industrial laws make it difficult for unions to take up climate change issues in enterprise agreements.

“The Commonwealth government must abolish restrictions on bargaining content within the industrial relations system, such that it is clear workers have the unambiguous right to bargain around climate change and its impacts in the workplace,” they recommend.

Fighting climate change is already union business—including campaigning for a rapid transition to 100 per cent publicly owned renewable energy with guaranteed jobs for displaced fossil fuel workers.

But this report is a reminder that climate change affects us at work. Unions need to mobilise for solutions to heat stress on the job and fight for the right to strike to win and implement those measures.

By David Glanz

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