Labor is a critical component of the global economy. Even slight changes in workforce productivity have a significant effect on overall economic output. Productivity across a wide range of economic sectors has been found to be affected by working conditions, including workplace environment and exposure to a variety of climate-related factors. Sub-optimal environmental conditions do more than simply make workers uncomfortable. They also affect workers’ ability to perform tasks, and can influence work intensity and duration, all of which impact overall labor productivity.
Extreme high temperatures have the potential to weaken cognitive ability, impose biophysical constraints on work intensity, and induce shorter work hours. However, the effect of warming temperatures on the global workforce has to date received little attention in evaluations of climate change impacts.
Rising average temperatures, greater temperature variability, and more frequent and severe temperature extremes will make it harder to sustain optimal working conditions.
Higher temperatures can change the amount of time allocated to various types of work as individuals spend more time indoors to beat the heat, or as outdoor laborers take more frequent breaks to cool off. Climate-related factors can also affect worker performance, affecting cognitive capacity and endurance. Increased use of air conditioning for indoor labor and schedule changes for outdoor labor can mitigate some, but not all, of the effects.
Not all workers will be equally affected; the impact of climate differs across sectors of the economy. Workers in agriculture, construction, utilities, and manufacturing are among the most exposed. Workers in “high-risk” sectors are at particular risk of heat stress because of the internal body heat produced during physical labor. Extreme heat stress, brought on by more intense or extended days of exposure to high temperatures, can induce heat exhaustion or heat stroke and can significantly reduce ability to carry out daily tasks. Estimates of the impact of higher average temperatures and heat stress on work capacity indicate that labor productivity in high-risk sectors is highly vulnerable to temperature extremes, despite our ability in many instances to mitigate these impacts. According to Center for Disease Control records, from 1992–2006 there were 423 worker deaths attributed to heat exposure in the US, nearly a quarter from the agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting industries.
Workers in agriculture, construction, utilities, and manufacturing are among the most exposed.
Higher temperatures and heat strain, however, can also impact workers in stores and offices as well. Thermal conditions inside commercial buildings are often not well-controlled, and can vary considerably over time as outdoor conditions change, making it difficult to ensure optimum temperatures for worker comfort and productivity.