In the face of climate change, workers’ health is put to the test by new dangers

In the face of climate change, workers' health is put to the test by new dangers

Elias Vieira Gonçalves is a street vendor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazi. He has been working outdoors every day for over 25 years, exposed to the sun and, sometimes, intense heat.

(Apolline Guillerot-Malick)

Under the midday sun, lugging a heavy cooler in one hand and a mini barbecue in the other, Edimar Santiago walks the length and breadth of Rio de Janeiro’s Vermelha beach, performing a ritual that he has down to a T: setting down his cool box, taking out sausages or cheese brochettes, grilling them in record time, taking payment from the beachgoers, then setting off again. “The beach is great for those who come here to enjoy it and relax,” says the 23-year-old self-employed worker. “But for us street vendors, who come here to make a living, it’s tough. The sand is scorching hot and we have to carry heavy loads.”

Brazil is accustomed to hot weather but, increasingly, there are days of the year when outdoor working conditions become unbearable. In March of last year, the ‘feels-like’ temperature in Rio de Janeiro reached 62.3°C, the highest ever recorded by Brazil’s National Meteorological Institute. The country now has more than 50 days a year when the temperature rises above 40°C. As in other parts of the world, 2023 was the hottest year on record in Brazil. These extreme heatwaves have a direct impact on workers’ health.

Prolonged exposure to intense heat increases the risk of stroke and can lead to ‘heat stress’, a condition in which the human body is no longer able to regulate its temperature. It can lead to general exhaustion, muscle cramps, dizziness, fainting, headaches, nausea and vomiting. In a report on the subject in 2019, the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned: “By 2030, the equivalent of over 2 per cent of total working hours worldwide is projected to be lost every year, either because it is too hot to work or because workers have to work at a slower pace. […] The accumulated financial loss due to heat stress is expected to reach US$2,400 billion by 2030.”

Research conducted by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro has shown that some 38 million Brazilians (out of a total population of 215 million) are affected for almost 25 days a year. According to the Brazilian the Public Labour Prosecutor’s Office (MPT), the workers most at risk – in addition to street vendors – are waste collectors, bus and lorry drivers, warehouse handlers, security guards, supermarket and production line employees, agricultural and construction site workers.

“Construction sites are already dangerous places under normal circumstances, but extreme heat increases the danger by ten. Workers may faint or be struck by dizziness at any moment, drop their hammer on the head of one of their colleagues, or pass out while operating a machine or a pneumatic drill,” explains Ricardo Nogueira, a representative of Sintraconst, the civil construction industry workers’ union in Rio de Janeiro. This occupational safety technician also denounces the failure of companies to comply with the Brazilian law passed in 2022 requiring break times to allow for heat recovery in the case of outdoor work activities. “Sometimes, workers have to go against the orders of their superiors, who call them weak and lazy when they take a break to rehydrate,” he explains.

Although not able to provide Equal Times with specific figures, the Public Labour Prosecutor’s Office (MPT) noted an “increase in reports of exposure to excessive heat” in 2023, explains Cirlene Luiza Zimmermann of the National Coordination for the Defence of the Work Environment and Workers’ Health (CODEMAT), based mainly on data collected in the state of São Paulo. “Complaints include dehydration, faintness, dizziness, blackouts, headaches and physical exhaustion,” she says. In some cases, the risk can even prove fatal, causing an extreme body reaction: a sudden cardiac arrest or syncope with complications.

Skin cancers and infectious diseases

In some regions, climate change may result in a greater number of sunny days. Overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause an ophthalmological disease known as pterygium, which is common among fishermen and involves the abnormal growth of tissue on the whites of the eyes. Most often, it causes skin diseases. “Seventy per cent of people who work in direct sunlight develop skin cancers,” says Antonio Oscar Junior, a geographer specialising in climate change who teaches at the Geography Institute at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

With the monotone of a seasoned candyfloss seller, sporting a pink T-shirt that does little to protect her arms from the blazing sunrays, Cione Ribeiro is well aware of the risks she runs working on Vermelha beach. “Everyone here ends up with some form of skin cancer. I’m afraid of getting one, but I really need to work,” says the 60-year-old. Elias Vieira Gonçalves, who has been a street vendor since 1997, adds: “Many of my colleagues don’t protect themselves and complain of skin problems. Their bodies are damaged by the sun. From one day to the next, we see no more of them. They just disappear.”

As self-employed workers, their situation is all the more precarious and they have to rely on their earnings to buy sun cream. “I sometimes use it, but right now I’ve run out. When I run out, I can’t always afford to buy more,” says Santiago, the grilled cheese vendor.

Higher temperatures and humidity favour the proliferation of mosquitoes, which are vectors of infectious diseases such as dengue fever. “It is currently the fifth leading cause of sick leave in Brazil,” according to Oscar Junior. In February, a health emergency was declared in Rio de Janeiro due to an epidemic of dengue fever, which was more intense and started earlier than in previous years. In the first quarter of 2024 alone, Brazil recorded 2.5 million cases (around a hundred fatal), according to the Ministry of Health.

Although dengue fever is not directly regarded as an occupational disease, workers in certain settings, such as farms or building sites, are more likely to be infected than others. “In the construction sector, for example, there is huge potential for mosquitoes to thrive,” adds the geographer. The fever can last up to a week, leaving workers unable to work for several days. The situation is particularly problematic for those who work informally and have no health cover.

For a number of years, Brazil’s sectoral trade unions have been actively raising awareness and heading prevention campaigns for workers. “The aim is to raise public awareness, as well as to encourage vaccination, and to provide information to combat fake news,” explained Mauri Bezerra dos Santos Filho, vice president of the national confederation of social security workers, CNTSS/CUT, speaking before the National Health Council in Brasilia on 22 February, reflecting the concern over the spread of another form of epidemic on social media: disinformation.

Extreme weather events

The 28 April is the date chosen by the ILO each year to promote the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases and to commemorate workers who have died or been injured at work. This year, the ILO has chosen to focus on the harmful and lasting effects of climate change on occupational health and safety, producing a full report on the subject, which was published on 22 April.

Among the impacts, in addition to those already mentioned, the experts highlight extreme weather events such as flooding and forest fires, which are expected to increase in number, severity and intensity. In recent years, these disasters have increasingly featured in the news: deadly cyclone in the south, devastating wildfires in the Pantanal or Cerrado, torrential downpours and landslides in greater São Paulo, and the list goes on.

In Brazil, as elsewhere, emergency and rescue workers increasingly find themselves on the frontlines, where they are more exposed to the risk of injury and death. Firefighters are exposed to the carcinogenic risks linked to smoke, while emergency personnel can be affected by chemical or biological pollution (such as sewage discharges). Exposure to such intense and dangerous events can also lead to workers in these sectors developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“We recognize that this has been an unprecedented season and wildland firefighters can face issues ranging from trauma, isolation, lack of social support as well as physical and emotional exhaustion,” says Melissa Story, coordinator of Alberta Wildfire, in a September 2023 article featured in Canadian media outlet The Narwhal, about firefighters on the frontlines of the megafires that ravaged Canada’s forests last year.

This is an area often overlooked and rarely researched. In addition to their physical impact, climatic hazards are increasingly affecting workers’ mental health. The effects of extreme temperatures on mood increase the risk of suicide and have an impact on the well-being of people with existing mental health conditions. The distress associated with ongoing or anticipated climate and environmental changes, affecting the livelihoods and social cohesion of communities, can give rise to climate anxiety (also referred to as solastalgia).

Socioeconomic and racial discrimination

As shown by the particularly high-risk situation in the construction sector, illnesses linked to the effects of global warming also reflect socioeconomic discrimination. “The majority of office workers have access to air conditioning and a temperature of 21°C, whereas workers on building sites are exposed to temperatures of up to 50°C. It’s totally surreal!” says union representative Nogueira. “Air conditioning in offices is necessary to prevent computer equipment from crashing, in other words, companies are more concerned about their computer hardware than their workers. Wherever there’s a computer, there will always be air conditioning. But when construction workers go to the canteen for lunch, at best there’ll be a fan.”

As academic Oscar Junior points out: “These workers at the bottom of the ladder are also the ones who continue to be exposed to the heat when they get home. Most of them do not have air conditioning. As a result, they may experience heat stress around the clock. Biologically speaking, the body can’t take it.”

In Brazil, a country whose history is rooted in slavery, such discrimination also takes on a racial dimension. “Which population group predominantly works in the construction sector, in factories and as bus drivers? The answer is black men,” says Oscar Junior. “So they are much more exposed than the white population to the effects of climate change. It is not just climate injustice, but also environmental racism.”

Very few of the street vendors on Vermelha beach have ever consulted an occupational physician. Santiago is a case in point. “Two months ago, it was so hot that after a day working in the sun, I ended up with a burn on my face. It went away, eventually. I wasn’t able to see a doctor. I don’t have time. Except, maybe, when it rains,” explains this resident of the Complexo do Alemão favela in Rio de Janeiro.

According to Oscar Junior, implementing public health policies requires “generating adequate data”. Yet the researcher has observed an under-reporting of deaths due to illnesses linked to climate change. “Occupational physicians are not prepared for this type of diagnosis. They fail to recognise high temperatures as the cause,” he explains. “The effects of global warming therefore end up being overlooked in workers’ medical records.”

Cirlene Luiza Zimmermann of CODEMAT concludes: “Occupational health and safety programmes need to be updated to incorporate climate change issues, providing clear guidelines for dealing with extreme weather events, including the implementation of early warning systems and the promotion of an organisational culture that prioritises the safety and well-being of workers in all weather conditions.”

This article has been translated from French.