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Working on a warmer planet: The impact of heat stress on labour productivity and decent work

Heat stress is increasingly becoming an obstacle to economic activity. It reduces the ability of businesses to operate during the hottest hours. Adapting to these new and threatening conditions is costly.Even if it does prove possible to limit global warming by the end of the century to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the accumulated financial loss due to heat stress is expected to reach US$2,400 billion by 2030. 

This report has examined the extent to which heat stress affects labour productivity, measured in terms of working hours, in virtually every country in the world.

Did you know:

  • Globally, an estimated 1.4 per cent of total working hours were lost in 1995 owing to heat stress, representing around 35 million full-time jobs worldwide. As a result of the temperature increases caused by climate change, it is projected that the percentage of total working hours lost will rise to 2.2 per cent by 2030 – a productivity loss equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs.
  • Of the 20 subregions analysed, four are particularly vulnerable and are expected to suffer losses close to or above 3 per cent in 2030: Southern Asia, Western Africa, South-East Asia and Central Africa.
  • By contrast, North America and all the subregions of Europe are not significantly affected by heat stress.
  • The difference in productivity losses between the subregions most affected by heat stress and those affected to a lesser extent is even greater if one considers in‑sun temperatures.

Action taken today to limit global warming by the end of the century to 1.5°C (the RCP2.6 climate change pathway), or at least to 2.7°C (the RCP6.0 pathway), will determine the extent of future labour productivity losses. The sectoral composition of employment – in particular, the shares of agriculture and construction in total employment – also has a strong influence on the extent of productivity losses due to heat stress.

Areas with high vulnerability to heat stress tend also to be characterized by a lack of decent work. Thus, working poverty rates in Central Africa, Western Africa, Southern Asia and South-East Asia – the four subregions most affected by productivity losses due to heat stress – were, respectively, around 50, 40, 15 and 5 per cent in 2015.

Heat stress is more common in agriculture and construction because of the physical nature of the work and also because it is usually carried out outdoors. These two sectors also tend to have higher levels of informality, which means that agricultural and construction workers are less likely to have access to health care and other forms of social protection against workplace accidents and injuries, including those produced by heat stress.

Moreover, heat stress can act as a push factor for migration, prompting people to leave rural areas in quest of better prospects in their countries’ cities or abroad.

The impact of heat stress could also exacerbate existing gender inequalities in the world of work, notably by worsening the working conditions of the many women employed in subsistence agriculture, and of men on construction sites. In sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture employs 12.2 million women, who make up 50.2 per cent of total employment in that sector, while men make up over 80 per cent of total employment in the construction sector (International Labour Organization)