The Decrease Of Workers’ Productivity: An Overlooked Cost Of Climate Change

by Ashpreet Kaur

The climate crisis affects everyone on this planet. Rising temperatures are leading to human health issues and ecosystem changes which leads to socio-environment disturbances. One such issue is work productivity in normal day to day life.  It has been observed that workers’ productivity understandably decreases with increasing temperatures in the workplace and outside. A study conducted by the University of Chicago shows how increasing average temperatures reduce workers’ productivity and lead to more absences [1]. While productivity can be increased by installing a cooling system in the workplace, absences due to high temperatures outside seem not to be impacted by the cooling system in the workplace. Developing countries that see increasing average temperatures (such as India) are facing high costs resulting in a loss in productivity and absences [1]. More labor-intensive sectors, such as agriculture or construction, already face even more challenges because of the climate crisis [2]. Rising temperatures cause heat stress in areas already experiencing high temperatures. It therefore influences the economy due to low labor availability, low investment, and increasing illness [3, 8]. While with increasing temperatures, countries with hot climates face a setback in labor productivity, in cold countries, productivity increases as the annual temperature increases. However, above an optimal temperature, productivity gradually declines [7].


Heat exposure at work can be caused by some natural and human-controlled factors. Natural factors include air temperature, radiant temperature, humidity, and outdoor wind speed. Factors that are humanly regulated include:

  • The amount of physical effort workers put into work; 
  • The time of day when a task is being done;
  • Indoor wind speed (fans, coolers);
  • Duration of exposure to direct sunlight;
  • Country location;
  • Type of tools and machinery used;
  • Clothing and the intensity of work being undertaken. [4, 9, 12]

Pre-existing health conditions, age, sex, and obesity can increase the chances of deaths caused by heat stokes [9]. Factors like extreme weather, rainfall, and extreme wind can affect workers, especially outdoor workers causing injuries, drowning, and risk of infectious and non-communicable diseases [16]. A systemic literature review conducted in 5 industries in Europe (manufacturing, tourism, agriculture, construction, and transportation) studied the negative impact of increased workplace heat on health and productivity. The study revealed that outdoor workers are at higher risk of vector-borne diseases. Indeed, higher temperatures aid these vectors to spread easily. Specifically, in agriculture and construction, 30 degrees celsius or higher temperature results in a 14% decrease in the labor supply [15]. Researchers have estimated a loss of 29% of daylight work hours in Southeast Asia as of 2050 if the temperature increases [10]. This results in an economic loss of the area. 

Heat strokes have been reported to cause illness, chronic kidney disease, and death amongst the agriculture laborers in Central America [8]. In Qatar, construction workers have reported cardiovascular deaths due to increasing workplace heat [9]. Excessive heat can cause other issues like dehydration due to evaporation, fatigue, mental stress due to loss of productivity, chances of suicide, confusion or unconsciousness due to central nervous system malfunctioning, and an increase in the spread of infections [9]. Excess heat also results in heat syncope (fainting), which creates hazardous conditions for workers working with heavy machinery or construction at high altitudes. Heatwaves are also found to be one of the issues leading to health-related mortality. In 2003, a two-week heatwave in France caused more than 1000 deaths [13]. Another major factor that affects productivity is air pollution, which affects outdoor workers and indoor workers. A study conducted in China measured workers’ productivity in two call centers. A drop in the number of calls workers handled each day was found as the air pollution index (API) increased. The API is driven by particulate matter pollution. If the white-collar workers are affected by indoor air pollution, it is safe to say that we all are at risk of lower productivity due to air pollution [17]. 

A more mechanized agriculture can reduce the loss of life caused by increasing heat [9], but developing countries can’t necessarily afford such technological investments. Moreover, mechanization leads to the loss of jobs and therefore a loss of livelihood for people who are solely dependent on labor work. 


While monitoring and curbing greenhouse gas emissions is a must on a larger scale [16], there can be some things done on a smaller scale that can provide immediate help on the short term. Occupational heat exposure levels are usually measured with Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) using temperature, humidity, wind speed, and heat radiation [13]. The threshold value acceptable for moderate labor work is 28°C and for heavy labor is 27 °C. This raises the need to take specific measures to adapt to the changing climate. These measures include ‘technical,’ ‘infrastructural, regulatory and planning,’ ‘behavioral,’ or ‘research and development’ changes [13]. 

Technical measures can include changes such as providing air conditioning or green roofs (a building roof that is fully or partially covered in soil and vegetation). Regulatory and policy measures include following the “green” building standards like increasing urban greenspace. Trees, green roofs, and vegetation can help reduce urban heat island effects by shading building surfaces, deflecting radiation from the sun, and releasing moisture into the atmosphere [18]. Behavioral responses occur more at the individual or firm level. It can include changing working hours, locations, or employment type. And finally, research and development (R&D) efforts help in improving the effectiveness of or developing new adaptation options [3]. Some behavioral changes can be taking breaks during the hottest time of the day, taking water breaks, taking a cold shower on-site [6].

Under technological measures, air conditioning is the easiest and most effective in reducing internal building heat. Still, it increases the heat outside the building adding to the urban heat. Apart from this, such technologies are very energy consuming. Generation of energy causes heat, hence positively feeding the heat cycle. The alternative to this is UV-reflecting albedo roofs, shading the building and improving ventilation. These options are more sustainable and also work well in countries that can not afford the cost of air conditioning or do not have a continuous supply of electricity [5]. However, this might not be applicable to pre-existing infrastructure where architectural planning already includes improved ventilation. Climate modeling can identify the areas that need mitigation policies and actions towards climate change. This includes regional analysis of heat exposures and their impacts on health and labor productivity [10]. When planning workplace infrastructure, easy access to cool drinking water to prevent dehydration should also be considered [10]. 

Providing health services at the occupation site is also, and might become, an essential requirement or a “new norm” to safeguard the health and hence productivity of workers. These can include providing safe drinking water, free health checkups, training and educating people about heat impact prevention, and monitoring coworkers’ health [11]. Drinking fluids and the availability of a cool place to sit (shade cover) have been reported helpful by workers in Thailand [13]. Predicted Heat Strain is the most advanced method today to predict potential health problems due to occupational heat [12]. Kjellstrom and his colleagues developed a Population Heat Exposure Profile method to analyze and predict the impact of present and future climate change like the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), which is a critical heat stress indicator [14]. 


The issue of heat exposure for people at work is not new. The effects of heat exposure on mine workers was studied in the 1960s for example [13]. . By the 1990s, the effect of heat on agriculture, forestry, and fishing laborers and athletes had been studied [13]. Most climate adaptation measures have focused on young children and the elderly population while neglecting the labor class. There is therefore a need for more occupational epidemiology research to estimate the effect of climate change on working groups. Climate change is directly impacting workers’ productivity, resulting in occupational health hazards like injury or risk of vector-borne diseases. The direct impact on the health and productivity of the workers can then be seen in the reduced economic growth of the area. As such, every country should develop long-term mitigation plans like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and short-term plans like providing health checkups, drinking water availability, shade cover, and green infrastructure. 

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Categories Economics/Resource Efficiency and Circular Economy

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