The 2023 Intergenerational Report (IGR) highlights the risk that climate change poses to Australia and its economy.
In recent years, this risk has become a reality as extreme weather events – from inland droughts to the 2019-20 bushfires to the disastrous floods across eastern Australia – have combined with other challenges such as COVID-19 to generate a wide range of stresses and disruptions.
The IGR points to some of these risks and impacts, including escalating insurance costs and threats to agriculture, tourism and infrastructure.
In particular, the IGR emphasises the negative effects that extreme heat can have on certain forms of work – notably those that involve physical exertion and where workers are exposed to ambient heat outdoors.
A wide range of research now demonstrates that related areas of work, such as agriculture and construction, must urgently adapt. Most of the current efforts reduce workers’ exposure to extreme temperatures by altering factors such as starting times. Some companies, such as those in the gas-pipeline maintenance industry, are automating tasks to reduce exposure by replacing workers altogether.
As the IGR acknowledges, the impact of heat on physical, outdoor work is only one way that climate change will affect workers, productivity and the economy. Getting a handle on the broader effects requires analysis of how weather and climate interact with different aspects of work, including the wide range of factors influencing how workers prepare for and present at their workplace and thus perform at work.
As recent events have demonstrated, extreme weather or dangerous conditions such as floods or smoke can badly disrupt transport systems, making commuting to work impossible or arduous for many workers.
Working from home may provide an answer for some, but not all jobs can be done from home and not all homes are suitable for home working. Crucially, many workers that we depend on to keep society functioning can’t work from home, in industries such as emergency response, health, infrastructure services and maintenance, transport and food supply.
Our research into climate impacts at work provides insights into perceived climate-change effects on workers and their workplaces. Participants in the survey were drawn from sectors not typically associated with the effects of climate change: health workers and carers, public servants, hospitality workers and public transport workers. In addition to difficulties in commuting, these workers reported two broad forms of climate impacts.
First, climate change has made their work and workplaces more difficult and stressful, including: irritable and angry customers and colleagues; having to cover for absent workers resulting in increasing workloads and adding unfamiliar tasks; and losing hours and in some instances jobs.
Examples were provided by hospitality workers who have had to work in extremely hot kitchens, made worse by uniform requirements; by librarians who have had to accommodate influxes of clients seeking a cool refuge during heatwaves; and by in-home care providers who have had to manage clients’ hot houses and additional needs.
Second, workers reported impacts outside of work that affected their productivity. Disrupted sleep and increased tiredness and fatigue was one aspect, pointing to the quality of housing as a factor.
Worsening mental health is another serious impact. For example, the ongoing psychological effects of recent bushfires were reported by some workers, where the experience of palls of smoke across Australian cities in the summer of 2019-20 meant that during subsequent hot and fire-prone conditions they were anxious, reluctant to leave home and distracted at work.
Some workers, for instance, described how their concern for distant family members facing disaster conditions reduced their capacity to work, underlining the importance of seeing workers as socially connected individuals who are affected indirectly via family and friend networks. These imperceptible effects challenge narrow notions of who is affected by a given disaster.
Far more research is required to understand the extent of these effects and explore how adaptation efforts can reduce them. Major questions include the cumulative effects on individuals and the aggregate effect on workers at the level of organisations, industries and society.
As the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report on Australasia concludes, research is especially needed into the proliferation and cause of cascading climate-change impacts.
Because workers sit at the interface of multiple networks, systems and places, they are likely vectors of cascading impacts. Research is needed into how they are affected, and what can be done to stymie such effects. The associated adaptation options could be some of the smartest, most catalytic adaptation investments any organisation or government could make.
The authors would like to thank Anna Langford from Friends of the Earth for her contribution to this research, as well as the members of the six Victorian unions that participated in this project.