KANBrief 1/24

Impacts of climate change on occupational safety and health and standardization

The climate crisis is becoming increasingly apparent, and not only through extreme weather events such as heatwaves and floods. Occupational safety and health must adapt.

According to European scientists, 2023 was the hottest year in 125,000 years; the German Meteorological Service (DWD) has classified it as the hottest since records began. The consequences of the climate crisis are also being felt more and more sharply in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, in many cases literally. Extreme weather events such as prolonged heatwaves and the associated forest fires are becoming more frequent as a result of global climate change, as are heavy rainfall and flooding, including flash floods. UV and ozone pollution is rising. Invasive insects, such as species of disease-bearing mosquitoes and ticks previously unknown in our regions, are spreading. Lengthening of planting and blooming seasons increase the likelihood of allergy symptoms such as hay fever, asthma or contact dermatitis.

The aggravated climatic conditions also present a challenge to occupational safety and health and its existing regulations and standards. According to a report (in German) by KLUG (the German alliance for climate change and health) and the Centre for Planetary Health Policy (CPHP), commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) and published in 2023, relevant risks to workers are likely to be more intense and occur more frequently as a result of climate change. To ensure that a long and healthy working life continues to be possible, timely preventive measures are therefore required, entailing both climate protection (mitigation) and adjustment to the consequences of climate change (adaptation).

According to the researchers, heat already constitutes the greatest threat to health in Europe. It is a cause of increasing work-related stress and absences from work, which in turn have far-reaching negative repercussions for productivity. The Policy Lab Digital, Work & Society of the BMAS warned as early as 2021 (in German) that regions where the temperature exceeds human beings’ “operating temperature” on a significantly growing number of days can now also be found in industrialized countries, such as the “Sun Belt” south of the 37th parallel in the USA. This gives rise to physical problems such as dehydration, general fatigue and concentration impairments, cardiovascular complaints, kidney dysfunction, and potentially also heatstroke.

According to KLUG and the CPHP, hot conditions may indirectly increase the incidence of occupational accidents, not only owing to impaired concentration, but also for example owing to hands being wet with perspiration, or glasses becoming fogged. The increase in perspiration caused by the wearing of protective clothing at work may also impact negatively on physical well-being. The German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) also states in a report that the thermoregulation required by the human body may be placed at risk when work is performed under heat stress. Physical activity typically generates considerable heat in the human body, and personal protective clothing can have an insulating effect.

Conversely, failure to wear protective equipment increases the risk of exposure to harmful substances or pathogens. Heat may facilitate the release of thermally sensitive substances, such as formaldehyde from product materials or plasticizers from plastics.

A further exacerbating factor is that the sustainability required by EU chemicals legislation, for example, also applies to substances found in personal protective equipment and fire extinguishers. In addition, a ban on forever chemicals containing fluorine (PFASs) is being discussed in Brussels. The textile industry is concerned about the lack of alternatives at this stage for protective work clothing, for example for police officers, firefighters and medical personnel. This could possibly be resolved by the stepping up of research and standardization activities.

In addition to the risks posed by heat, rising solar UV radiation presents a challenge for occupational safety and health. Personal protective equipment for protection against UV radiation in areas such as construction, agriculture, delivery services, swimming pools and childcare also includes sunglasses, sunscreen and special textiles. The importance of these products can be seen from the growing incidence of skin cancer. A range of European and international standards already exist for the product characteristics of personal protective equipment.

Further standardization activity is also taking place in the VDI/DIN Commission on Air Pollution Prevention (KRdL). This body is already addressing issues such as the origin and prevention of emissions, disposal, residual materials, recovery of thermal energy, environmental meteorology, the exposure impact, and waste gas purification and dust technology. Experts working in the field, however, are still keen to address safety issues relating to recycling or re-use of materials associated with a risk of hazardous substances being released. The “safety by design” approach, i.e. the incorporation of protective measures directly into machines and products, is likely to be beneficial here.

The BMAS also points out that recycling and recovery of raw materials for the climate-friendly technologies required for the EU Green Deal often takes place in developing and emerging economies. It therefore identifies the formulation and dissemination of joint relevant standards and the establishment of international rules for the observance of labour and social standards in supply chains as important areas of action. Demand is growing for integrated solutions across occupational, product and environmental safety that break the silo mentality. In particular, the BMAS views the digital transformation and establishment of the circular economy that is being driven forward by the EU as an opportunity to implement cross-disciplinary approaches of this kind with regard to international production, consumption and recycling regimes.

Adoption of structural and technical measures for summer heat protection is also a priority, emphasizes Stefan Bauer, expert on climate change and occupational safety and health at the BAuA. These measures include provision of exterior shades and blinds, energy-efficient and regenerative cooling technologies, and suitable urban planning measures such as the greening of exterior walls and open spaces to reduce indoor thermal loads. The German Ordinance on work places (ArbStättV), with its requirement for indoor temperatures to be conducive to good health, must be developed further into a broader requirement for a healthy indoor climate. In some cases, DIN is working on relevant standards, for example concerning the thermal insulation of buildings, and harmonized measurement and assessment methods; climate change has, however, yet to become a comprehensive integral part of standards. The pooling of experience across sectors must therefore be promoted, says Bauer, in order to contribute to climate-resistant standards throughout Europe.

DIN emphasizes that transition to a climate-neutral industrialized country requires a far-reaching green transformation in all areas of the economy and society. This now includes new technical rules, and review and adaptation of existing documents. The reason is that standards engender confidence in new climate-friendly technologies during creation of a green and sustainable economy. They support development of new markets, and increase investment security for companies and the state. Finally, they define a common language and methods for creation of comparability, and enable the progress made in the struggle against climate change to be measured. DIN is working closely here with other relevant national institutes and the European and international organizations CEN and ISO.

The European Commission is also pressing forward. In February 2022, it presented a new standardization strategy for exertion of greater influence on global development. With this strategy, the Commission seeks to ensure that standards support the digital and green transition. The climate protection legislation linked to the Green Deal requires net greenhouse gas emissions in the EU to be reduced to zero by 2050. Overall, the Member States should then emit no more pollutants than they offset, for example by reforestation or CO2 storage. KLUG and the CPHP leave no doubt that there is no alternative to implementation of these ambitious targets. Germany’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (ArbSchG) also states that hazards are to be combated at source. It therefore follows, in their view, that climate protection measures for limiting global warming constitute an important prevention measure in occupational safety and health.

Stefan Krempl, Freelance journalist