The Effects of Climate Change on OEHS—And How OEHS Professionals Can Prepare

2022 was the world’s sixth warmest year since recordkeeping began in 1880, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual global climate report. With 2022 marking the 46th consecutive year that global temperatures have risen above the 20th century average, and all of the 10 warmest years on record having occurred since 2010, it’s clear that the global climate is changing.

Although the name of the occupational and environmental health and safety field includes the word “environmental,” many OEHS professionals feel that the issue of climate change falls outside their purview. After all, they’re not climate scientists or conservationists. Generally, their responsibility is to ensure that workers are healthy and safe more than it is, for instance, to bring about the shift to clean energy or protect endangered biomes. But industrial hygienists Doug Fallon, MSPH, CIH, CSP, and Sadie Daffer, CIH, CSP, emphasize that even the most traditional IH concerns will likely become more severe and affect more people as climate change progresses.

How Are Climate Change and OEHS Related?

The environment has always been a central focus for Daffer, even before she began her IH career. “For me, it always made the most sense to focus on the environment because it impacts everything,” she said. “I always did a lot of community service as a kid, and it’s great to help out, but there are always ways to affect more long-term change.”

Daffer studied environmental science in college and assisted with endangered species assessments as an intern for an oil and gas company. After graduating, she took a position as an environmental consultant, which involved wastewater sampling and hazard assessments for asbestos and lead. Later, as an industrial hygienist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, Oregon, Daffer dealt with the effects of wildfires caused by damaged or overheated electrical equipment, including the need to protect construction workers from inhaling particulates. Now the industrial hygiene program manager for the U.S. Army Public Health Command in Stuttgart, Germany, she also serves on AIHA’s Climate Change Adaptation Task Force.

Fallon, meanwhile, cites the Zika virus epidemic of 2015–16 as an event that helped him realize interrelation between OEHS and climate change. At the time, Fallon was the U.S. Coast Guard’s regional director for industrial hygiene, safety, and environmental health for the Gulf Coast. His role included training Coast Guard personnel on protecting themselves from transmission and eliminating potential mosquito habitats, since the main vector for Zika virus is Aedes aegypti, a mosquito species typically found in warm, tropical environments. “I don’t know if I realized it at the time,” Fallon said, “but looking back, the changing climate is creating more habitat for those mosquitos, and they’ll probably continue to spread north throughout the country. Getting people prepared to deal with that is a climate change effort.”

Now a consultant with Colden Corporation, Fallon has dealt with other issues resulting from climate change due to the nature of his work. “One thing we’ve noticed, especially last summer, is that we have a lot more clients requesting thermal stress services, either assessments or helping them to develop programs,” he said. At Colden, Fallon has also helped clients form contingency plans for severe weather events and advised an electrical utility company on situations they might encounter when they travelled to Puerto Rico to recover the electrical grid after it was seriously damaged by Hurricane Fiona.

Increased incidents of heat-related illness and injury among outdoor workers is one obvious occupational health outcome resulting from higher average global temperatures. As hurricanes form over warm water, it is also clear that severe weather and its consequences for occupational and public health are likely to intensify as climate change continues. And in areas experiencing drought, a warmer climate will result in more destructive wildfire seasons. Even beyond these phenomena and their implications, however, Daffer and Fallon stress that a broad range of occupational health hazards are likely to worsen due to climate change.

According to Daffer, “with increased rainwater events, you’re going to have more water that’s entering wastewater streams and potentially contaminating clean water.” She explained that warmer conditions and more severe storms will contribute in turn to increased mold growth and greater numbers of people experiencing mold allergies. Extreme weather may also cause breaches in hazardous chemical storage, resulting in increased exposures.

Diseases such as Escherichia coli, typhoid, and malaria are likely to affect more people as the climate warms. In addition to the Zika virus, Fallon cited Lyme disease, caused by bacteria found in certain tick species, and the fungal disease Valley fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis, as illnesses that are expanding past their historical geographic ranges.

How Can OEHS Professionals Prepare?

Fortunately, the OEHS profession already has the skills and knowledge to control the hazards mentioned above. “There’s nothing all that novel,” said Fallon, “but how do we change the mindset of people who have maybe never dealt with these hazards or haven’t made them a priority? To help them realize that these are things that they need to start training and equipping for?”

Climate change should not be understood as a slow, gradual process that can be handled later, Fallon stressed. Rather, an OEHS professional’s role should involve “helping people realize that the impacts are already here and that organizations need to be prepared for them,” he said.

From there, it will be essential that OEHS professionals help organizations create or revisit contingency plans to ensure operations can continue during and after unprecedented weather events or other disasters. For example, organizations must consider how they will proceed if employees can’t get to work or how employees will be kept safe if they are somehow unable to leave the facility. “Thankfully, the pandemic has helped a lot of us think through that,” said Fallon. “It’s just expanding those plans to deal with things like severe weather, wildfire smoke, and these other hazards associated with climate change.”

Daffer added that emergency action plans must be “updated, valid, and actionable” and hoped that organizations become “willing to look at climate solutions as long-term solutions.”

Overall, preparing for climate change requires OEHS professionals to take a proactive approach and anticipate whether their organization or client may encounter unfamiliar hazards or familiar hazards at heightened levels. “It’ll be really important for industrial hygienists to be prepared, to do more research, and be forward thinking, because work environments are going to be changing pretty rapidly,” said Daffer. She urged OEHS professionals to seek out resources such as guidance documents and modeling tools for hazards related to climate change “to ensure that they have the best practices and all the information they need to be prepared when these events do eventually happen.” Currently, Daffer is working with other members of the Climate Change Adaptation Task Force to create a body of knowledge on OEHS and climate change, which is planned to become available in the coming months.

Furthermore, in May, Daffer and Fallon will host an educational session at AIHce EXP 2023, titled “Adapting to the OEHS Challenges of a Warming World.” They intend for the session to give participants greater awareness of OEHS hazards related to climate change, as well as the skills they need to anticipate and recognize these hazards in the workplace.

Empowering Change

Climate change is such a large-scale problem that preparing for it can seem intimidating—or as if a single person isn’t able to create significant change. But Daffer hopes that participants of the educational session “come away from it empowered to make changes in their organizations because as professionals and subject matter experts, we’re set up perfectly for this event.” While she agrees with Fallon that there needs to be a greater consciousness of environmental concerns, OEHS professionals “have the knowledge and experience to take that awareness to leadership and to employees to make long-lasting recommendations.”

The issue of climate change is likely to have important effects on the future of OEHS, and not only due to new and increased hazards. It’s also a topic that draws newcomers into the profession. “What’s really interesting, for me, is the younger generation coming into the field because they’re so passionate and so vocal,” said Daffer. “It’s nice to see them be so interested in an issue and want to make change. I think that interests me and inspires me at the same time.”

Educational session M3, “Adapting to the OEHS Challenges of a Warming World, is scheduled for Wednesday, May 24, 2023, from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., Mountain time. AIHce EXP 2023 will be held May 22–24 both virtually and on site at Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. To view the program or to register, visit the conference website.

For more information about the topics discussed in this post, read “Ill Wind: Climate Change and Industrial Hygiene,” “A Power Mission in Puerto Rico: Bringing Aid and Electricity after Hurricane Maria,” and “After the Pandemic: Planning for a Better ‘Normal’” in The Synergist.

This article was published on February 7th, 2023 in the Synergist Blog written by Abby Roberts.

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