Climate Change

When Climate Change Meets a Bad Work Environment, Disaster Can Strike

April 21, 2022  • Shelly Steward & David K. Gibson

Dire predictions about this summer’s weather are already arriving. The western United States is struggling with persistent record drought, more than half the country is predicted to have above-average temperatures this spring, and this year’s hurricane season already promises to be severe. These conditions reflect the intensifying weather that characterizes fast-progressing climate change; even the scales by which we measure the strength of disasters are growing obsolete.

These worsening conditions are especially hard for farmworkers, delivery workers, sanitation workers, construction workers, and those who work outdoors and in facilities that do not offer protection from the elements. Nearly one-fifth of workers spend considerable time outside, with more than four percent constantly working outdoors. These people face two of the greatest challenges of this century: the harsh realities of climate change combined with steadily worsening job conditions. While these two troubling trends may not seem related, they have recently converged in frequent and deadly ways.

Last summer, record-breaking heat in the Pacific Northwest led to the deaths of several workers, including a farmworker, a construction worker, and a warehouse worker. An NPR analysis of federal data shows that the average number of workers killed by heat has doubled since the early 1990s. In December, an unseasonable swarm of tornadoes tore through the US South and Midwest, killing six workers at an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, and nine at a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky. According to survivors, some workers at these facilities had been told that if they left their posts upon initial warnings, they would lose their jobs.

These fatalities—at the intersection of rapidly advancing climate change and steadily eroding workplace protections—are fueled by short-term perspectives and the prioritization of profits at the expense of people. They are also a grisly harbinger of what may come without urgent and drastic intervention.

Workers exposed to unsafe heat and other extreme weather conditions brought on by climate change are among millions in America laboring under conditions that reflect decades of deteriorating job quality. They are trapped in low-paying jobs without meaningful pathways to better lives. These workers face stagnant real wages, difficulty accessing benefits, and unions weakened by policy where they exist at all.

Short-term thinking has worsened climate change and exploited workers.

Thanks to corporations’ focus on ever-increasing delivery speeds and encroaching production timelines, workers fall victim to dangerous mindsets that value short-term economic gains above all else. They labor with few protections on unpredictable schedules, often as temporary or subcontracted workers who fill ever-fluid labor needs in a way that avoids liability. Only seven of the 190 workers at the Amazon facility struck in December were full-time direct employees. So, when things go wrong, they go very wrong. Facilities are unprepared, workers and supervisors are untrained, and warnings are too often ignored in the face of tight deadlines and performance-based incentives.

Worsening storms and rising temperatures are just some of the ways climate change is poised to endanger the lives of workers. The United Nations’ International Labour Organization predicts extreme weather events to be one of the primary ways that climate change will threaten the labor market, and no sector will escape its impact. High temperatures and smoke will create unsafe working conditions for outdoor workers. Factories and offices will be inundated by floods. Working days will be lost to disaster and displacement, making high production numbers and on-time deliveries impossible. Workers who choose to stay sheltered rather than travel to work in dangerous weather may be required to use vacation time or simply be fired for not showing up. Businesses that shutter after a weather event often owe no wages to hourly employees, and contract employees can have their income shut off before the storm clouds have cleared. The most vulnerable workers, especially those from Black and brown communities, will suffer the most.

Recently, state and federal governments have taken steps forward to protect workers from advancing climate change. California, Oregon, Washington, and Minnesota have developed state-specific heat standards, which require water, shade, and additional rest breaks in extreme heat conditions, along with training for workers and employers. Last September, as part of a multi-agency effort to address heat-related health concerns, the Department of Labor launched an initiative on occupational heat exposure. This initiative includes steps toward developing the first federal workplace heat standard, additional resources for enforcement and inspection, and a cross-sector Heat Illness Prevention Work Group to advise ongoing efforts.

These types of legal protections against unsafe conditions are an urgent and essential step toward saving lives. But our society doesn’t have the luxury of trying to solve one problem at a time. The future needs sustainable investment that aligns economic, social, and environmental interests, creating solutions that amplify one another rather than challenges that exacerbate one another. We need an economy that will be both climate-friendly and worker-friendly.

Rather than prioritizing short-term profits, businesses, policymakers, and communities need to work toward a sustainable and equitable future. Businesses must take accountability for their role in shaping our current challenges, and then take responsibility for making the future more livable. This requires solutions that are centered on and developed in partnership with those who are most impacted. Workers must be empowered to challenge the systems that brought us to where we are, and we must strengthen worker organizations, including community groups, in policy development and implementation, incorporating worker and community voices into business decisions.

Changing course is not a small undertaking; it will require the creation of a new, more thoughtful economy. But it is clear that our current economy—one which treats workers as expendable and the future as an economic externality—is a looming disaster that none of us will escape.

This piece is part of In Focus: Rising to the Climate Challenge, a multimedia informational campaign that draws on the expertise of Institute programs. We look at four main facets of the climate change issue—labor and the economy, youth and education, public health and safety, and communities. To get campaign updates and other news from the Aspen Institute in your inbox, sign up for our newsletter. 

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