Is your employee health program ready for climate change?  

Is your employee health program ready for climate change? 586171960
July 06, 2023
Wildfires in Canada have affected air quality and created health hazards in locations ranging across America over the past few weeks – bringing home to those of us not living in areas where such conditions have become common just how frightening and disruptive this type of event can be. In a Mercer survey of more than 2,000 US workers conducted last year, 43% said they were extremely concerned/very concerned about adverse climate events. As the graph shows, workers in the West and particularly California, not surprisingly, were the most concerned. It’s easy to imagine that if the survey were conducted today we’d see similarly high levels of concern in other regions as well.  But even last year, only 18% of workers nationally said they were not at all concerned about climate events.

Workers who are extremely or very concerned about adverse climate events

Physical and mental health impacts

The health effects of smoke from wildfires can range from eye and respiratory tract irritation to more serious disorders, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma and heart failure, and premature death.  Unsurprisingly, significant associations have also been found between wildfire exposure and mental health including anger issues, posttraumatic stress disorder, specific phobia, severe psychological distress, and heavy drinking. 

Kaiser Family Foundation released new research indicating that over 65 million adult workers in the U.S. are  in occupations at increased risk for climate-related health risks.  That is roughly four in ten of nonelderly workers.  These are mostly jobs that involve greater exposure to heat, decreased air quality, extreme weather, vector-borne and infectious diseases, and environmental contaminants – with agricultural and construction workers and emergency responders most at risk.  From a demographic perspective, minority and lower-income workers will be disproportionately impacted by increased climate-related risks. 

Start planning for climate change

Even if you are not in an industry with higher exposure for climate risk, it is important to think about how climate change affects your employees and their loved ones outside of working hours.  With wildfire season well underway, this is a good time to remind your employees about the range of benefits to support them throughout challenges posed by hazardous air quality, such as healthcare resources targeted to those with asthma, other respiratory conditions, and heart failure.  Acknowledge that these conditions might cause or heighten anxiety or depression and encourage them to seek mental health care or support through their EAP.   

Of course, wildfires are not the only adverse climate events that are on the rise.  Based on the types of events that can affect the areas where your operations are located, consider providing proactive communications with personal safety recommendations and information about external resources.  As we learned during the COVID crisis, employers that step up to support employees during the most difficult times earn their trust and loyalty.    

Check out this post for more ideas about supporting employees during climate-related disasters

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