OHS will eventually need to address the big climate change impacts

The latest edition of the Journal of Occupational Medicine (JOM) (Vol 61. No 5 Aug 2011) includes a short article on the occupational impact of climate change, an issue that must be addressed in the work context and one that places additional challenges for those involved with safe design.

The JOM article lists the following hazard categories that are likely to affect workplaces and activities:

  • “Increased ambient temperature (global warming) and resultant climate changes,
  • Increased air pollution (resulting from increased temperatures, ozone levels and airborne particles),
  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation,
  • Extremes of weather (resulting from global climate change),
  • Vector-borne diseases and expanded habitat,
  • Industrial transitions and emerging technologies,
  • Changes to built environment.”

It is unlikely that employers will try to tackle climate change through OHS considerations as there are far more important economic pressures.  OHS, in this context, can only be reactive but several of the issues mentioned above are likely to substantially change work methods and planning.

The hazard of ultraviolet radiation can be controlled to a limited extent by clothing and personal sunscreen but the reorganization of outdoor hours of work to reduce risk will have to be considered eventually.  This will cause ripples through construction methodologies and contract design.  It is one thing to expect construction to work with safe design principles but any contract will also need to be written so as to avoid increasing the risk of extreme UV exposure.

The safe design principles will also need to be creatively applied for, currently, the major risks addressed are falling from heights, equipment servicing, and some construction methodologies.  The “secondary” or emerging risks of UV, increased disease exposure and weather extremes will be a considerable challenge and one that is yet to get major attention.

Green building principles focus on the reduction of energy use and needs but will need to be increasingly compatible with safe design principles.  In fact these two elements are the fundamentally the same, only coming from different perspectives.

The JOM article emphasises that the urgency for change has been identified by the World Health Organization in its Global Plan of Action for Workers’ Health (GPA).  This is true in the general sense but the article’s reference is not to the GPA  but to an article by MA Fingerhut (J Occup Safety Health 2010; 18:182-195) that discusses the implementation of the GPA.  The GPA itself has no mention of “climate change”.

The concept of safe design has gained some renewed attention in Australia with the impending imposition of new Work Health and Safety laws in 2012, and the development of a new ten-year National OHS Strategy.  Safe Work Australia has recently acknowledged that safe design lost its focus.  The most recent edition of the Journal of Health Safety Research & Practice (JHSRP) included an article based on a survey of design engineers where engineers showed an awareness of their duty of care:

“The designers brought up their duty of care frequently in discussions stating that it is within their duty to consider construction workers and build-ability.”

Given the time lag in publishing research, it is reasonable to say that such awareness is likely to be even more heightened as the discussion on the duties of designers in the new WHS laws becomes more overt, as observed in one recent Australian conference .

OHS is not a core concern for climate change action but the impact of climate change on work processes, the working environment and job/task design is undeniable.  The challenge for OHS practitioners, professionals and regulators will be to take the hard decisions on these new environmental hazards that will come from applying the Hierarchy of Controls.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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