Hazard Zone - The Impact of Climate Change on Occupational Health

By Julie Potyraj

The impact of climate change on agriculture is often discussed in relation to environmental health. It threatens “global food security, sustainable development, and poverty eradication,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Factors like loss of farmland and changes in water availability could yield a decline in both the quality and quantity of crops. Droughts and floods could become more regular and erratic as global temperatures rise, making it difficult for farmers to plant and harvest crops. Extreme weather events are already taking a toll on agricultural land around the world. Rural men and women whose livelihoods depend on the availability and accessibility of natural resources are especially vulnerable. Many of the 3 billion people who live in rural regions of developing countries rely on agriculture. Climate change threatens their food supply and their income.

However, the vulnerability of rural farmers extends beyond environmental concerns. Their health is also at risk. Climate change is likely to impact both the frequency and severity of human health issues, according to “An Overview of Occupational Risks from Climate Change,” an article by faculty members of the Master of Public Health program at The George Washington University. The paper also notes that changes in climate will likely intensify health and safety issues for both indoor and outdoor workers in a wide range of professions. Agricultural workers, including farmers, represent some of the most vulnerable populations to these new risks. Increased heat exposure, which can lead to heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and even death, poses a particularly great threat to these workers. They also face greater exposure to ozone and vector-borne diseases. Extreme rain events and flooding could also increase susceptibility to infectious diseases and enteric infections, which are typically transmitted through contaminated food or water.

MPH@GW, the online MPH program from The Milken Institute School of Public Health at GW recently published the above graphic to outline some of the most prominent health threats to workers around the world. The effects on individual workers vary depending on environmental and ecological factors. However, climate change is expected to exacerbate threats to occupational health around the world. For vulnerable rural populations, climate adaptation strategies must include measures related to health in addition to agriculture.