Climate risks harm workers. Health professionals can help

Co-written by Prasanna Vankina (University of Minnesota Medical School)

Climate change is an urgent and costly public health crisis. On the front line are the workers who have to deal with a changing work environment where occupational risks worsen and evolve. These include outdoor workers in California facing high levels of smoke, farm workers in Texas facing heat exhaustion, and workers in New York City suffering from exposure to mold or dust. when cleaning up after a storm.

Nurse preparing personal protective equipment (2021)

How can we protect them? As the saying goes, “you need a village”. We need many stakeholders, including healthcare professionals, who are important role models for society, to understand, address and advocate for occupational health and safety. Healthcare professionals can address the climate risks workers face in three ways: educating professionals in all healthcare sectors about work-related climate issues, identifying trends in injuries and illnesses related to climate in worker populations and advocating for climate programs and policies that protect workers.

Healthcare professionals of all specialties can play a key role

The idea that healthcare professionals need to take a proactive role in understanding climate change and addressing its urgent and disproportionate impacts on diverse communities is not new. However, progress has been slow. Both in the health arena and in the broader public dialogue, current discussions of individual and public health often overlook workers as a population particularly affected by climate change.

Healthcare professionals are already seeing patients with conditions linked to climate change. It is important that all the health professions recognize the climate-related risks faced by workers. While occupational medicine and infectious disease specialists may recognize the damage caused to workers by climate, low-income people generally face greater financial barriers to specialist care. This is especially true for people in precarious employment, who receive most of their care through emergency departments or primary care practitioners at community health centers. A climate equity approach to worker health and safety should be the norm rather than the exception in all medical specialties.

To ensure that all healthcare professionals are fully prepared to deal with the climate risks faced by workers, medical education should also establish and improve initial and continuing education on climate health equity that provides also priority to occupational diseases.

Doctors in New York Climate March (2014)

Identify trends and understand the big picture of climate risks at work

Healthcare professionals are uniquely positioned to identify emerging trends in climate-related health issues. In fact, doctors across the United States have already started pointing out the increased number of cases of cardiac arrest during heat waves, asthma from air pollution, and other health effects. climate related. Unfortunately, it is not known to what extent workers are affected by climate hazards, given the relative lack of standardized data on work-related illnesses and injuries in relation to climate health. In addition, many hospitals and healthcare facilities still do not interview their patients or collect information about their profession.

Incorporating a work history would require changes in health records guidelines, an initiative advocated by a number of physician groups. Improving the collection of occupational data for patients would give healthcare providers and hospitals the tools to spot emerging trends in occupational health. As we grapple with the most significant threat to global health of our time, it is essential that healthcare professionals actively integrate workplace climate risks into their patient interviews and analysis. data to better understand the broad nature of the problem.

Healthcare professional administering COVID-19 vaccine in Des Moines, Iowa (2021)

Health professionals are trusted messengers on the impacts and solutions of climate change

Clinicians rank among America’s top professions for honesty and ethical standards. This stature offers organizations and healthcare professionals the opportunity to amplify effective responses to climate risks facing workers. Health is one of the pillars of the American economy. From providing essential care at the height of the pandemic to participating in vaccine deployment campaigns, healthcare professionals have played a critical role in advancing public health goals. In many communities, both rural and urban, health systems are the largest employers. This dynamic enables those employed in the sector to create a broad network of engagement in their communities, both at work and at home.

Healthcare organizations have many opportunities to share resources, tools and communication frameworks on climate change and its impacts with various groups of workers. This includes educating healthcare system employees about the climate risks they may face at work, developing partnerships with community organizations and local unions, developing geographically appropriate workplace safety programs. , and advocating and supporting policies that protect workers from climate risks.

Army medical professional providing patient education material (2011)

U.S. Army Photo by Army Medicine

With the right tools through education, advocacy, research and public policy, the health sector is ready to provide more proactive climate and health support to workers.

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