Climate Change and International Workers Memorial Day

Here is a topic that spans all three of my public service ‘hats’ of weather guy, union workplace health and safety guy, and municipal councillor guy.

April 28 is the National Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job or globally, International Workers Memorial Day.  Being an industry town in a traditionally primary industry region, this day carries special meaning historically and currently as both forestry and fishing remain two of the most dangerous jobs a person can do.

But what about the future? This Guardian article “Workers face ‘epidemic of heat-related injuries’ due to climate change”, highlights a UN report that outlines the risks to workers in the future.

The reports first key finding reads:

Excessive workplace heat is a well-known occupational health and productivity danger: high body temperature or dehydration causes heat exhaustion, heat stroke and in extreme cases, death. A worker’s natural protection is to slow down work or limit working hours, which reduces productivity, economic output, pay and family income.

And the image they used of roadway markings distorted by heatwaves in India made me think of our municipal and other trades workers here in Port Alberni durning the summer.


A key finding of the report says:

The IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report confirmed that labour productivity impacts could result in output reductions in affected sectors exceeding 20% during the second half of the century–the global economic cost of reduced productivity may be more than 2 trillion USD by 2030.

We have already guaranteed some warming of course and thus an increase in heat related deaths, in fact, while it isn’t clear that it was due to heat stress, could the death of a wildfire faller near Sechelt last summer  be attributed to climate change? An argument could certainly be made his death was made more likely due to the severity of the fire activity last July. Meeting our GHG reduction targets would greatly lessen the impact of heat related injuries and give us a better chance of adapting. From the UN org that produced the report:

Future climate change will increase losses. Even if the current commitments of the world governments to combat climate change are realized, losses by the end of this century to most vulnerable economies of all available daylight work hours will double or triple.

The greatest impact in the world will of course be on the poorest regions as they are generally already in the hottest areas and it will only get hotter.  But what about locally here in Port Alberni?

The report gives us a hint of what constitutes “excessive” heat. (emphasis added).

Excessive heat while working, generally at temperatures above 35º Celsius, creates occupational health risks and reduces work capacity and labour productivity (Parsons, 2014). Maintaining a core body temperature close to 37ºC is essential for health and human performance, and large amounts of sweating as a result of high heat exposure while working creates a risk of dehydration. Excessive body temperature and/or dehydration causes “heat exhaustion”, slower work, more mistakes while working, clinical heat effects (heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even death; Bouchama and Knochel, 2002) and increased risk of accidental injuries (Schulte and Chun, 2009). These health effects lessen labour productivity, whether the worker is in paid work in a range of industries, in traditional subsistence agriculture or farming, or in other daily life activities (examples in Figure 1). Daily family activities, such as caring for children or the elderly, are equally affected.

We all know that Port Alberni receives some of the hottest temperatures on Vancouver Island, so this is an area of potential concern for all of our outside workers including private and public sector, our seniors and children and the public at large.

How often does Port Alberni traditionally get above 35ºC?  I don’t have daily data at my finger tips for all the stations (it’s on the to-do list) but I do have monthly records.

In the Valley:

  • Historically, between January 1900 and 1950 the Beaver Creek station had a monthly maximum over 35.0ºC 59 times.  So that is a minimum of just over once (1.2x) a year.
  • Between 1965 and 2015 Robertson Creek station recorded monthly maxima over 35.0ºC 45 times. (note there are records a few possible months missing).  That gives a rate just under once (0.9x) a year.

In the City:

  • Between 1920 and 1960 the City of Port Alberni station recorded monthly maxima over 35.0ºC 29 times. A rate of 0.73 a year.
  • Between 1970 and 1995 the Somass River station recorded monthly maxima over 35.0ºC 19 times.  A rate of at least 0.76 a year.

At the Airport:

  • In just the past 10 years (so a much shorter period and so should be considered less representative), between 2005 and 2015 the Airport station recorded monthly maxima over 35.0ºC 13 times.  A rate of at least 1.3 a year.

At some point if I can ever download all the data for all of the stations in the Valley and put it into a proper database, I would like to go back and look through the daily records to see how many actual days over 35º there have been recorded over the past century and whether the rate has increased at all.

What we do know is that average temperatures have risen in our Valley and that means we are certainly more likely to see more days of extreme heat over 35ºC in the future.  We may even reach 30ºC this Monday.

As a community that is traditionally well aware of the dangers facing our working people, we will have to put our minds to ways of limiting the effects of increased heat on the community.  This can be done through tree planting, limiting the amount of asphalt pavement and asphalt rooves, encouraging more efficient and insulated home and office construction, and increasing access to water.



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