Apr 22, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Over 70% of world's workforce exposed to excessive heat each year, UN finds

People wearing protective clothing while gathering produce on a farm near Hemet, California, in August 2023.

People wearing protective clothing while gathering produce on a farm near Hemet, California, in August 2023. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Extreme heat exacerbated by human-caused climate change kills thousands of workers around the world each year and injures tens of millions of others, according to new estimates from the United Nation's labor organization.

Why it matters: The International Labor Organization (ILO) reported that currently over 70% of the world's workforce is exposed to excessive heat on at least one occasion every year and warned that the figure will rise as global temperatures increase.

  • The ILO said this will result in increased mortality and reduced productivity among workers unless governments create additional workplace safety rights and protections — particularly for outdoor workers.

By the numbers: The ILO estimated that workers suffer 22.85 million occupational injuries and 18,970 work-related deaths from excessive heat every year.

  • It said hundreds of thousands more die annually from pesticide poisoning, air pollution, solar UV radiation and parasitic and vector-borne diseases.

Details: Particularly at risk of being injured or dying from extreme heat and other outdoor occupational hazards are agricultural, construction, natural resource management and refuse collection workers.

  • Some subsets of these workers face an even higher risk, such as migrant workers in informal construction and agricultural settings or those in emergency services during extreme weather events like wildfires.

Zoom in: Some U.S. states have created heat protections for workers, while others have banned local attempts to establish them.

  • Last week in Florida, one of the hottest states in the U.S., Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed legislation banning local governments from requiring heat-exposure protections, like mandated breaks, for outdoor workers.
  • It was the second state to do so, as Texas passed similar legislation in 2023, the hottest year ever recorded.

Zoom out: Attempts by Congress and the Biden administration to mandate such safety measures on the federal level have stalled or made little progress, meaning most workers have few legal protections related to extreme heat.

  • Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that extreme heat killed almost 1,000 workers between 1992–2021 and caused at least 33,890 work-related injuries and illnesses between 2011–2020.
  • However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration notes that these are likely "vast" underestimates due in part to the difficulty of tracking and reporting heat-related injuries and deaths.

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