Report: Construction workers on the front lines of climate change risks

Dive Brief:

  • A new California legislative analysis suggests climate change poses a particular risk to employees who cannot avoid outdoor exposure, including construction workers, and that the risk is increasing.
  • It says that construction workers face increased occupational risks and health hazards from greater exposure to elements like heat and air pollution. They are also at greater risk of decreased productivity and disruptions that make work less stable and predictable, such as extreme heat and wildfire smoke threats shortening the viable construction season or causing work slowdowns.
  • Certain populations carry a larger burden, according to the report from the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office. At higher risk are low- and middle-wage workers and Latinos, because that population makes up a disproportionate share — about 60% — of California’s outdoor workforce.

Dive Insight:

According to the LAO report, California faces five major hazards resulting from climate change: 

  • Higher temperatures and extreme heat.
  • More frequent and intense drought.
  • Increased flood risk.
  • Worsening wildfires.
  • Coastal flooding and erosion. 

It suggests that taking preemptive steps to help workers and industries adapt to these and other future effects could result in better long-term health outcomes and fewer economic impacts.  

The report encourages lawmakers to consider what role the state should play in addressing climate concerns. This includes safety and economic impacts on workers and employers — both on the state’s employment rolls and in private industry. Fiscally, for example, the state likely will incur higher costs in the future for its employees fighting wildfires and other climate impacts, so the legislature could consider the increased costs in budget and climate action planning. 

Managing risks

Although the LAO report focuses specifically on climate impacts in California, many of the points apply to the health and safety of construction workers across the country. 

Construction organizations and companies nationwide are collaborating on appropriate industry responses to climate change, according to Peter Tateishi, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of California. His chapter, along with parent group AGC of America, is examining construction’s responsibilities regarding climate change. 

AGC of America has a climate task force that last year released recommendations for reducing construction’s climate impact.

“We have a responsibility as construction to be part of the response and resiliency factor for all kinds of crises,” Tateishi said. For example, “we’ve been adaptive in how we keep our people safe in high-heat incidents” and in managing valley fever, an infection caused by a fungus in dry soil, on jobsites.

Greg Sizemore, Associated Builders and Contractors vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development, told Construction Dive that member contractors make plans for weather extreme conditions in the early stages of projects. 

ABC offers guidance to mitigate the effects of extreme weather hazards, such as beginning work shifts earlier in the day, building in rotations and educating on proper hydration techniques.

Besides health and safety training, companies can provide workers with protective gear to reduce exposure to climate-related elements, the report said. For instance, Tateishi said that respirators can prevent construction workers from inhaling some air pollution or dangerous microbes; the report notes that worsening drought could cause the fungus that leads to Valley Fever infection to proliferate.

Tateishi notes that the LAO report lumps workers from numerous outdoor professions into one group, and breaking out additional, granular data for individual groups could result in more targeted climate action plan development.

“At some point, I’m hoping they release a little more data around it so that we can really understand the differential there and what is already being done on job sites in construction versus others,” he said. “For us to really be better, we have to know what is the science … and what are we currently doing versus others?”

Many governmental and corporate climate action plans focus on reducing carbon emissions and increasing sustainability within operations. Protecting workers from climate impacts generally is a less prevalent element of existing plans, but it is important to consider, sources say.

LAO’s report reinforces the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s information regarding climate change’s impact on construction workers and other outdoor workers. NIOSH says these workers are exposed to conditions that the general public can choose to avoid, with threats including heat exposure, air pollution and biological hazards such as the spread of pathogens and allergens that are affected by temperature and rainfall.

Katie Pyzyk
https://www.constructiondive.com/news/construction-workers-on-front-lines-of-climate-change/622705/
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