Global warming affects working life at all latitudes.

Blog post by Hannu Rintamäki / Finnish Institute for Occupational Health

Global warming is unavoidably increasing. The Northern hemisphere is heating up even faster than the Southern hemisphere. Yet cold is still the major problem at work in the North and, quite paradoxically, more workers than previously risk exposure to cold weather, writes Hannu Rintamäki, a research professor at FIOH.

The rate of warming starts to speed up at the level of Southernmost Europe (40 degrees North), and in the Arctic (above 66.3 degrees North), it is already three to five times faster than in the South. This phenomenon is called Arctic amplification.

Productivity or safety?

Naturally, global warming poses the biggest threat to the well-being, health and safety of people in countries that are already hot.

When effective technological solutions for protecting workers are not available, there are two other options: either adapting to the warming climate by slowing down the working rate, or trying to maintain a normal work pace.

The first choice sustains health and prevents accidents, but decreases productivity.

The second choice may sustain productivity in the short run but causes illnesses and even fatalities.

People doing heavy physical work are at greatest risk. But the risk is even higher if the workers are not adapted to the climate or are otherwise vulnerable, which is often true in the case of migratory workers. Alarming examples have already been seen, for example, at construction sites in Qatar.

Warming increases exposure to cold

Although the North is warming rapidly, cold is still the most common problem. Problems with cold start at light work below +10 Celcius degrees, but in, for example, Arctic open pit mines they emerge at below -10 Celcius degrees, as shown by the recent MineHealth study.

At the moment, global warming, by melting the ice of Arctic seas, increases off-shore and on-shore activities in the North. Therefore, the number of cold-exposed workers is in fact increasing.

In many cases, these workers come from more temperate climates – migratory workers once again. Although they may be highly professional in their work, they lack the adaptation and experience to work in cold, darkness and isolated working conditions.

The effects of climate on workers’ well-being, health and safety were recently discussed in the sessions of ICOH2015 and ICCH16.

NIVA Hannu_Rintamaki