Climate change and the risk to workers

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Published: Nov 19, 2021

The human impact on climate change and the environment is largely beyond question, with experts predicting a 1.5c increase in global temperatures by 2050. While the economic and ecological effects of this increase are still being understood, it is expected that shifts in the climate will produce new challenges to health and safety.

According to a 2019 study by Manchester Metropolitan University, heat, extreme weather, and air pollution are all expected to pose greater risks to workers as time progresses, with those from socio-economically disadvantaged countries at most risk.

In July 2021, the Royal Meteorological Society released their latest analytics of the UK’s climate, revealing that the last thirty-year period has been nearly 1c warmer than the preceding three decades. This may not sound extreme, but in practice it means that areas such as Heathrow airport reached 37c in August 2020.

Long work hours without adequate shade or protection can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and muscle cramps. Aside from being dangerous, in certain circumstances, this can lead to an inability to concentrate and increase the risk of accidents.

So, what provisions exist to help ports deal with these increased hazards, and what discussions are needed to ward off issues further down the line? Thankfully, PSS already provides some valuable information on what to do to protect workers from the worst excesses of these risks.

There is no officially mandated upper temperature limit and it falls on the employer’s duty of care to ensure staff are properly cared for. PSS strongly advises that staff working in extreme heat be supplied with adequate shade, ventilation, and water to prevent dehydration and heat stroke, and appropriate clothing and sunscreen be applied. In the case of shorts, for which PSS has received members enquiries, we advise the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and PPE should never be sacrificed for the sake of lighter clothing. More information can be found in our occupational health SiP document.

With increased heat comes the increased risk of dust and other particulates in the air. This can exacerbate pre-existing medical issues such as respiratory infections and asthma, where irritation of the bronchi in the lungs can lead to shortness of breath and tightness in the chest.

Approximately one in twelve adults suffer from asthma, with deaths relating to the condition rising 33% in the last decade, according to the British medical journal. To combat dust and air pollution, operators are advised to assess and control the risk of exposure through risk assessments and careful time management of who is in a high-risk area.

Mechanical methods of dust control, such as misters and on-site extraction, are also useful in the handling of hazardous material such as clinker. In addition to mechanical measures, appropriate PPE is always advisable, however any respiratory protection must be suitable for the dust in the air, fit correctly, and worn correctly. These can all be judged in the risk assessment.

The most important environmental benefit a port can make is to reduce carbon emissions. In 2018, the IMO released a port emissions toolkit outlining the strategies available to operators in reaching net zero. In the time since its publication, researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have found that emissions from major international seaports rose significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic, as over half of all maritime emissions come from berthed ships. This increases the risks posed to quayside workers who continue to keep this twenty-four-hour industry running.

The crucial factor in all of this is to conduct rigorous risk assessments and check them against existing guidance. In the case of extreme heat, a heat stress checklist can prove invaluable in measuring the strains of temperature on activities and allow for employers to offer countermeasures.

With air pollution and particulates, follow existing regulations on PPE and ensure risk assessments are carried out so that potential hazards are mitigated as best as possible. As always, we ask that members continue to chare and exchange information and successful practices with us and each other, so that our sector is as prepared as possible for what the future holds.

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