It’s too hot to work – literally
Climate change isn’t just a safety issue, it’s also a serious threat to productivity
Jul 19, 2016
As temperatures soar, workers in many countries - particularly Asia - won't be able to work as many hours. Shutterstock
By Todd Humber
It’s been a scorcher of a summer in Canada.
In coastal British Columbia, droughts have been declared. In the middle of the country, it feels like it hasn’t rained since the spring — with water advisories aplenty in Ontario and Quebec. One county in Nova Scotia saw less rain in June than it has in 70 years.
David Phillips, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s entertaining spokesperson, put it this way: “It’s really a double whammy. Not only has nature forgot how to rain in some areas, but it’s also warmer.”
Rising temperatures could have a much more significant impact than just brown lawns and pool envy — it could literally become too hot to work in many parts of the word, according to an article by Beh Lih Yi of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Thomson Reuters is the publisher of Canadian HR Reporter.)
The numbers are startling — by 2030, hot weather that makes it unbearable to work could cost the global economy more than $2 trillion US in lost productivity.
“In Southeast Asia alone, up to 20 per cent of annual work hours may already be lost in jobs with exposure to extreme heat, with the figures set to double by 2050 as the effects of climate change deepen,” it stated.
More than 40 countries will see their GDP drop, the majority of them in Asia. And yes — China is on that list. Its gross domestic product could fall 0.8 per cent. India could see its plummet by 3.2 per cent. And this is solely the impact of hot weather.
Even the most ardent climate change denier can’t fudge the facts — that’s going to be bad for business. Perhaps even Donald Trump — who in the past has blamed the Chinese for climate change and called it an “expensive hoax” — would get on board if he saw the actual lost productivity due to extreme weather.
“Current climate conditions in tropical and subtropical parts of the world are already so hot during the hot seasons that occupational health effects occur and work capacity for many people is affected,” said Tord Kjellstrom, a director at the New Zealand-based Health and Environmental International Trust.”
When I was in university, I spent my summers toiling at Chrysler’s assembly plant in Windsor, Ont., building minivans. The city, at the southern edge of Ontario, is the hottest in the country. The plant, which lacked air conditioning, regularly exceeded 100 degrees F. On ultra hot days, the company would institute “heat relief” — where once an hour a worker would take over your job for nine minutes.
I don’t have hard evidence, but it certainly seemed like the line went down with increasing frequency as the mercury soared. So even in northern climates, extreme heat is going to take a toll on productivity.
Kjellstrom told Reuters an increasing need for rest is “likely to become a significant problem” as the hottest days get hotter, and heat waves stick around longer.
Hot weather has long been viewed as a health and safety issue. But the evidence is clear, it’s also a productivity issue. Which makes all those corporate social responsibility programs geared towards the environment feel a little less warm and fuzzy.
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Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber