We've Reached a Climate Change Tipping Point at Work
Last week, Hurricane Idalia made landfall, leaving a trail of destruction throughout Florida and the Southeast. This latest storm adds to a growing list of weather disasters this year, from devastating floods in New York and Vermont to record-setting temperatures across Arizona and New Mexico.
In fact, NOAA’s latest climate report reveals that there were 15 individual weather and climate disaster events in the U.S. between January and July 2023, each with losses of over $1 billion. That’s the highest number of billion-dollar disasters ever recorded for the first seven months of a year since NOAA began tracking events in 1980. In total, these events caused 113 fatalities and produced more than $39.7 billion in damages.
But even as climate change disasters are becoming increasingly commonplace, they’re also becoming less shocking to the general public. That’s because according to one study, people learn to accept extreme weather as “normal” in as little as two years. However, this apathy could delay progress on climate action by decreasing public pressure on governments to advance relevant policies.
What we need to remember is that even though extreme weather events are becoming less surprising, by no means are they less consequential. One area of particular concern is extreme heat, which is growing in intensity, frequency, and duration due to the climate crisis.
Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group, estimates that extreme heat contributes to between 600 and 2,000 deaths a year, along with 170,000 injuries. This makes heat one of the top three main causes of death and injury in the American workplace.
In addition to the impact on employee health and safety, it’s estimated that high heat costs the U.S. $100 billion annually in reduced productivity, a figure that’s expected to double by 2030. As you might expect, these losses are highest in sectors that require outdoor work or have limited air-conditioning, for example agriculture, construction, and manufacturing.
The situation is so critical that in late July, OSHA issued a heat hazard alert to remind employers of their obligation to protect workers against heat illness or injury in outdoor and indoor workplaces. President Biden also announced new actions to protect workers and communities from extreme heat.
However, forward-thinking organizations can also take steps to protect their employees. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it could also be important from a talent attraction and retention standpoint — especially among younger workers, who place a high priority on working for an organization that supports sustainability and human health.
In today’s article, I’ll describe how climate change could affect the workplace in the not-so-distant future, and how organizations can adapt. Let’s take a look.
Companies may need to adjust employees’ work schedules
To avoid the hottest hours of the day, some companies and countries are requiring outdoor workers to start their day earlier or take breaks during the middle of the day. For example, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have a midday work ban during the summer — from around noon to 3pm — to protect the health and safety of workers operating in direct sunlight.
And it’s not just outdoor workers that are affected. Rising heat levels could make it challenging for employees to commute into offices or step out for a lunch break. One new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability suggests that businesses across many sectors might need to change their working hours from the 9 – 5 model to a 6 – 2. We may even see a trend toward outdoor employees needing to work at night to avoid the heat.
Employers will need to double-down on indoor health & safety efforts
While it’s easy to think that climate change will only affect outdoor workers, this simply isn’t true. In fact, “sick building syndrome” will likely be exacerbated by climate change. Increases in carbon dioxide are especially concerning, since CO2 levels in office buildings can be double the amount of outdoor levels due to the presence of people inside breathing.
High CO2 levels can lead to fatigue, lack of focus, and even nausea — bad news for organizations and their people. Companies who want to address these issues will need to work with building owners to ensure that proper ventilation or air treatment systems are in place. Helpful resources can be found through organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council, OSHA, and the CDC.
Remote work may become a necessity in certain parts of the world
In some cities, even having to commute into an air-conditioned office could soon become a health risk. Last summer, a heat wave in the UK was so extreme that employees were told to work from home because the commute would be too arduous. If the current trajectory continues, companies may need to allow their staff to work remotely more often in order to protect their workforce.
Transitioning to hybrid or remote work models would also have long-term environmental benefits. This was proven during the pandemic, when the widespread shift to remote working temporarily reduced global CO2 emissions by 17% compared to peak 2019 levels. Right now, however, the transportation sector — including vehicles, buses, and rail transit — is the largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
Companies may elect to shift their operations to cooler locations
Heat hazards and high cooling costs may force some companies to relocate their operations entirely. Last summer, heat waves shut down data centers in Europe and effectively “broke” the internet. Meanwhile, retailers like Walmart admit that they’re vulnerable to rising costs of cooling their facilities and extreme weather events that could threaten the habitability of the communities where they operate.
Companies may also need to move in order to have enough talent on-hand. A recent survey found that nearly 2 out of 3 Americans cited either climate change (30%) or better weather (34%) as a motivator for a move they made in 2022 or a move they’re planning to make this year. In particular, people are moving away from areas prone to wildfires, hurricanes, or extreme heat.
Most importantly, employers should strive to become part of the solution
Beyond protecting workers from the immediate health risks caused by climate change, employers need to recognize how their operations might be contributing to the problem at-hand and take steps to address this. The reality is that just 100 global companies were responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the past three decades.
There are many ways organizations can reduce their impact on the environment, and these will vary widely by industry. However, one common approach is to set a goal for “net zero” emissions. More than 4,000 companies, representing over a third of the global economy’s market capitalization, had by the end of 2022 set targets to reduce or completely offset their carbon emissions.
Halting climate change is doable, but it will require a multi-faceted approach from governments, employers, and individuals. Now more than ever, companies need to take the lead on this important issue and become part of the solution, not the problem.
Thanks for reading — be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on this topic!