By 2030 it is suggested that 2.2% of total working hours worldwide will be lost because of higher temperatures – a loss equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs

By 2030 it is suggested that 2.2% of total working hours worldwide will be lost because of higher temperatures – a loss equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs

Rising temperatures and intensifying levels of heat stress are set to impede worker productivity and hit export revenues over the next decade – with many of the world's 66m textile and clothing workers likely to be impacted, new research suggests.

Projections based on a global temperature rise of 1.5°C by the end of this century suggest that in 2030, 2.2% of total working hours worldwide will be lost because of higher temperatures – a loss equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs – either because it is too hot to work or because workers have to work at a slower pace.  

This is equivalent to global economic losses of US$2,400bn, according to a new report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) on 'Working on a warmer planet: The impact of heat stress on labour productivity and decent work.'

The research draws on climate, physiological and employment data and presents estimates of the current and projected productivity losses at national, regional and global levels.

Heat stress refers to heat in excess of what the body can tolerate without suffering physiological impairment. It generally occurs at temperatures above 35°C, in high humidity. Excess heat during work is an occupational health risk; it restricts workers' physical functions and capabilities, work capacity and thus, productivity. In extreme cases it can lead to heatstroke, which can be fatal. 

While outdoor workers in agriculture and construction are likely to be worst affected by heat stress, it is also seen as a serious problem for a large proportion of the world's 66m textile and clothing workers – many of whom have to work inside factories and workshops without air conditioning.

The report also cautions that the poorest countries will be worst affected, with Southern Asia and Western Africa the regions losing the most working hours.  

Lower-middle- and low-income countries are expected to suffer the worst as they have fewer resources to adapt effectively to increased heat. The economic losses of heat stress will therefore reinforce already existing economic disadvantage, in particular the higher rates of working poverty, informal and vulnerable employment, subsistence agriculture, and a lack of social protection. 

Indeed, the social consequences of heat stress may also include increasing migration, as workers leave rural areas to look for better prospects. 

Climate change consequence

"The impact of heat stress on labour productivity is a serious consequence of climate change, which adds to other adverse impacts such as changing rain patterns, rising sea levels and loss of biodiversity," says Catherine Saget, chief of unit in the ILO's Research department and one of the main authors of the report. 

"In addition to the massive economic costs of heat stress, we can expect to see more inequality between low and high income countries and worsening working conditions for the most vulnerable, as well as displacement of people. 

"To adapt to this new reality appropriate measures by governments, employers and workers, focusing on protecting the most vulnerable, are urgently needed." 

The report calls for greater efforts to design, finance and implement national policies to address heat stress risks and protect workers. These include adequate infrastructure and improved early warning systems for heat events, and improved implementation of international labour standards such as in the area of occupational safety and health to help design policies to tackle heat-related hazards.  

Employers and workers are best placed to assess risks and take appropriate action at the workplace so that workers can cope with high temperatures and continue to do their jobs.

Employers can provide drinking water, and training on recognising and managing heat stress. Social dialogue can play a crucial role in reaching consensus on indoor and outdoor working methods, adapting working hours, dress codes and equipment, use of new technologies, shade and rest breaks. 

Nine of the ten warmest years on record have now occurred in the 21st Century, and two years ago a heatwave in Bangladesh led hundreds of garment workers to collapse. Mass factory faintings are also a concern in the Cambodian garment and footwear industry, with up to 300 workers having been seen to collapse at a time due to a combination of factors including malnutrition and heat stress.