The Role of WHS in Managing Risks to Workers Exacerbated by Climate Change

Climate change is exposing workers to significant health and safety risks by exacerbating existing climate-related hazards. As the challenge of climate change continues to unfold, businesses may be required to adapt their operations to ensure the continued health and safety of workers. Critically, businesses must adhere to WHS law and policy as the primary measure to protect individuals in an evolving work environment.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) released its report, Ensuring Safety and Health at Work in a Changing Climate (ILO Report), in April 2024.

The report identifies six key risks to the health and safety of workers that are exacerbated by climate change being:

  1. Excessive heat;
  2. UV Radiation;
  3. Extreme weather events;
  4. Workplace air pollution;
  5. Vector-borne diseases; and
  6. Agrochemicals

Australia is facing increasing environmental pressures as a result of climate change. The depletion of the ozone in the stratosphere over Australia is an issue which has been acknowledged and mitigated by the Australian Government since the late 1980s. Not surprisingly, Australian workers are identified in the ILO Report as being at a greater risk of exposure to high intensities of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) than workers in other countries. UVR exposure is carcinogenic to humans and is linked to DNA damage and the development of skin cancer, as well as sunburn, phototoxic and photoallergic reactions, and immunosuppression.

The catastrophic Australian bushfire season of 2019-2020, aptly coined ‘Black Summer’, was attributed to exceptionally dry conditions caused by global warming. At its peak, large areas of Australia experienced hazardous air quality levels. The Medical Journal of Australia reported 1,124 hospitalisations for cardiovascular problems and 2,027 hospitalisations related to respiratory issues. The World Health Organization specifically identified ‘people who worked outside’ as being amongst the most vulnerable to the negative health effects of smoke exposure and inhalation.

WHS Duties of Businesses

Under WHS laws, Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBUs) have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers while they are at work in the business or undertaking. This duty includes ensuring the provision and maintenance of a work environment that is without risks to health and safety. The Australian WHS Strategy 2023-33 names climate-related risks as one of six significant emerging challenges facing the WHS space. Excessive heat, UVR exposure and air pollution directly threaten the ability of PCBUs to provide and maintain a safe work environment.

The ILO Report also identified worsened mental health as being linked to climate change, with environmental pressures often resulting in financial and social burdens for those affected. Workers most at risk include first responders, healthcare professionals working in disaster relief, construction workers who experienced prolonged exposure to heat, and farmers, forestry, and fishing workers. PCBUs also have a duty under WHS laws to eliminate, or otherwise minimise to the extent reasonably practicable, psychosocial risks to workers. In order to meet their WHS duties and avoid liability for WHS breaches, PCBUs must actively mitigate risks to the health and safety of workers that arise from climate change.

Best Practice for Businesses

Arguably, a new model Code of Practice could be introduced to specifically address the six key hazards outlined in the ILO Report. However, Safe Work Australia has already published a variety of materials to assist PCBUs to systematically manage some risks to the health and safety of workers and to meet their duties under WHS laws. For example, the model Code of Practice on managing the work environment and facilities includes specific control measures for eliminating, or otherwise minimising, exposure to extreme heat and UVR when working outdoors. The model Code of Practice on psychosocial hazards at work provides guidance on controlling psychosocial hazards that arise from a poor physical environment. A separate national guide on exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) and information on managing the risks of working in air pollution and hazardous weather have also been published by Safe Work Australia. PCBUs should engage with these resources and adapt their operations accordingly to ensure they are meeting their WHS duties.

Key Takeaways

  • Climate change is exacerbating climate-related hazards and creating significant risks to the health and safety of workers.
  • PCBUs must adapt their control measures and operations to ensure the health and safety of their workers remains paramount.
  • To meet their duties under WHS laws, PCBUs should engage with Codes of Practice and guidance material published by regulators and implement effective control measures to eliminate or otherwise minimise risks to the health and safety of workers posed by climate change.

For more information, please contact Michael Tooma, Partner and Head of ESG.


Partner, Head of ESG