By Charlotte Middlehurst
Wildfires in Siberia, flash floods in Europe and scorching summers across the world are driving home the effects of increasingly frequent heatwaves. And companies are having to adapt to the threats posed by this extreme heat by relocating their operations, adopting new employee protections and automating more labour.
According to UN scientists, the extremes of temperature that used to be expected only once every 50 years are now likely to occur once a decade, because of global warming.
The effects on workers are already being felt. In July, as the US west coast sweltered, Amazon let the public share its office air conditioning in Seattle — but other businesses had to send workers home.
But employers, generally, are still not fully aware of the dangers, says Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Centre, set up by the Atlantic Council think-tank, which produced a recent study on the health and economic effects of excessive heat.
“They are under economic pressures to keep producing, and so is the worker. But it’s at everybody’s peril if they do,” she says.
Anant Sudarshan, of the University of Chicago, and co-author of a study into the economic impacts of extreme heat, says labour productivity falls by about 2 per cent when temperatures increase by 1C, especially in environments above 25C. Other studies put the drop in productivity as high as 4 per cent per 1C.
Any company with a supply chain outside the most temperate climes will feel the effect, he says: “Extreme heatwaves in Bangladesh and India might be a big problem for the garment industry in the US or UK.”
Companies can, nevertheless, mitigate disruption by making a number of adaptations. Sudarshan says employers can: review climate control, air conditioning and other elements of workplace comfort, although this can involve more electricity use; give staff longer breaks to cool down, which may mean hiring more people; increase automation to cut exposure to extreme conditions; or relocate their operations.