Monday, June 22, 2009

What's Climate Change got to do with Workers’ Compensation?

As Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” aptly displayed, climate change has consequences for all of us. Most of us are workers so it follows that climate change will have consequences for workers’ compensation and prevention organizations.

Last week, the U.S. government released a new global warming report entitled "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.” It lists some of the likely consequences of climate change. As you read each of these, it is easy to imagine occupations that will feel the brunt of the change in a way that will influence safety and health. I’ve selected a few consequences and added a few but you may have others:

Heavy downpours - Occupational risks associated with flooding, washed out roadways, impaired visibility for drivers and others on highways, undermining of rail and bridge supports, silt debris buildups, contamination of water runoff.

Heat Extremes- Occupational risks associated with deformation of rail tracks, overheating of vehicles, delays and dangers in road building and repair, softening of asphalt, changes in lift properties of aircraft

Drought areas expand- increased wildfires, decreased visibility (blowing smoke, dust).

More intense hurricanes- storm surge danger, increased risks to safety and rescue workers, disruption in supply systems, dangers due to weakened manmade and natural structures (trees).

Health impacts- increase in occupational heat stress, exposure to waterborne diseases, poor air quality leading to exacerbation of underlying asthma, diseases transmitted by contact with insects and rodents new to the area.

The impacts on human health will also impact workers who are caregivers. These workers not only face the direct effects of the climate change but the indirect effects of caring for others impacted by heat, cold, flood, ozone/air quality, waterborne and zoonotic diseases.

The report provides detailed analysis for each geographic region. For the Northwest, the area just south of British Columbia, the report suggests increases in winter precipitation and decreases in summer precipitation, changes in snowpack, stream flows, sea level, and forests. The report cites the BC pine beetle experience:

The mountain pine beetle outbreak in British Columbia has destroyed 33 million acres of trees so far, about 40 percent of the marketable pine trees in the province. By 2018, it is projected that the infestation will have run its course and over 78 percent of the mature pines will have been killed; this will affect more than one-third of the total area of British Columbia’s forest.

The consequences for industries and workers dependent on the forests are obvious.

Most of the trends listed are already well underway. Creating greater awareness of the risks that come along with the consequences of climate change—and what to do to mitigate them—needs to be a priority.

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