Environmentalists and labour activists highlight the need to invest in training and good jobs for workers who will be displaced as our economy transitions away from fossil fuels. But there’s less focus on other ways the climate crisis is a workers’ issue. Over the next few issues of Economy at Work, we’ll look at how climate change affects workers from several perspectives. The first is health and safety.

Consequences of climate change include more intense storms and flooding, more frequent forest fires and heatwaves, and increased risk of illnesses carried by mosquitos or ticks. These are concerns for everyone – but for many workers, these represent new or increased health and safety risks on the job.

Many CUPE members work in emergency and security services, health care, municipal services, communications and social services. Over the past 30 years, these services have faced cutbacks, downsizing, mergers, amalgamations, and privatization. On top of this ongoing austerity, the consequences of climate change have begun to change how we work in different ways, depending on where you live and what you do at work.

Workers restoring power or organizing evacuation and relief efforts after storms are an example of climate change making our jobs more demanding and dangerous. Health care workers are seeing increased workloads because of heatwaves and respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution from wildfires and longer pollen seasons. People who normally work outside are affected by heatwaves, air pollution, and the increased risk of insect-borne diseases.

There are several ways workers can address these new or increased risks. We can tackle them through our health and safety committees, identifying ways to adapt our workplaces. And we can form environmental committees to support that adaptation and help reduce our carbon footprints. These are important steps, but much more is needed.

There are simple, concrete actions governments can take to help fight climate change and support improved health and safety for workers. Retrofitting public buildings will create jobs, reduce energy use, and deliver healthier work environments. Municipalities will need to invest in infrastructure to address changing weather patterns, including restoring wetlands, building berms to protect against flooding, or upgrading water infrastructure. Commuting to work needs to be affordable, safe, and less stressful. In our cities, public transit should be regular, reliable, and cheap. In rural areas and in between cities, we need to expand public solutions like the Saskatchewan Transportation Company, rather than shutting them down as the current provincial government has done.

Workers are on the front lines of the climate crisis. We should be on the front lines building solutions too.