Record Heatwaves: Protecting Employee Health and Safety

Record Heatwaves: Protecting Employee Health and Safety

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This insight is part 12 of 12 in this Collection.

September 20, 2023 16 mins

Record Heatwaves: Protecting Employee Health and Safety

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With the continued threat of rising temperatures, companies should focus on building climate and weather-related impacts into their overall workforce resilience plans.

Key Takeaways
  1. Record heatwaves will soon represent a new normal.
  2. Heat is a health and safety risk — employers should treat it like any other serious risk to mental and physical health.
  3. HR leaders must take steps to learn who is most at risk, and help employees adapt or mitigate the risk.

Summer in the Northern Hemisphere has once again brought record heatwaves in 2023. Globally, the hottest day, week and month ever recorded all occurred in July of this year1. And extreme heat events, both in temperature and duration, are only expected to become more common.2

Heatwaves are certainly not a new phenomenon. The hottest summer in Europe in over 400 years occurred in 2003. However, that record has since been surpassed at least six times since. From mental wellness and the physical health threats associated with extreme heat, to a rise in atmospheric pollutants and resulting challenges, the people-related risks associated with today’s changing climate are undeniable.

The Risk to Employees

A warming climate is a threat to workforce resilience. People are adjusting how they live and operate in a warmer planet — and the full extent of how extreme heat affects health is still being studied. The human health impacts of extreme heat span all areas of wellbeing. Specifically, recent research reveals the effect of heat on mental health.One 2022 studyfound that emergency room visits for mental illnesses were much higher during the hottest days of summer compared with the coolest days in the same season. Additionally, heat is associated with a spike in violent crime.5

Beyond mental illness, extreme heat poses a range of physical health risks as well.6,7 In fact, there’s been more awareness and research on how heat affects people with preexisting health conditions such as diabetes8.

Like other extreme weather events, heatwaves expose income and racial disparities. For example, a 2021 studyin the science journal Nature, found people of color were exposed to more extreme urban heat in almost every major U.S. city. In the United States, individuals without health insurance or those who are functionally uninsured (meaning they can’t afford to cover basic out-of-pocket costs like deductibles, copays and coinsurance), are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses. Heatwaves also contribute to the development of atmospheric pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter, which can have adverse impacts on respiratory and cardiovascular health. Increased risk of infectious disease, like Lyme disease and West Nile virus,10 as well as the proliferation of heat-loving bacteria can also lead to infections and increased risk of a future pandemic. Additionally, heatwaves increase the risk for wildfires — yet another factor driving atmospheric particulate matter. Still more respiratory risks come from an increased demand for electricity to power air conditioning. This causes potential outages, which can exacerbate heat-related problems while creating new ones — for example, a lack of power for sanitation systems or medical devices.

Addressing the Risk to Employers

Employers have a responsibility to their employees and their business operations to ensure the health and safety of their workforce. Beyond this, extreme heat can also cause productivity issues and business interruption. It’s recommended to treat heatwaves similarly to other public health risks like outbreaks of disease.

Employers should consider building climate and weather-related impacts into their overall workforce resilience plans. This includes:

  • Flexible working to limit outdoor work during unsafe conditions.
    • In the U.S., the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that employers implement measures to protect the health of workers exposed to heat and hot environments.11
    • The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has published similar guidelines, based on NIOSH standards as well as those from the UK, Australia and Canada.
  • The availability of adequate shade, water and regular resting breaks. Workplace safety regulations related to heat are evolving to provide more protection.
  • Contingency plans for locations not traditionally considered prone to certain natural disasters, but which are now susceptible.
  • Loosened location requirements for remote workers if they don’t have access to air conditioning and need to go to a public space.
  • The acknowledgement that employees in lower income areas may be more susceptible (e.g., longer waits in the heat for public transportation, less reliable electricity infrastructure) and less able to adapt to the effects of extreme heat. For example, turning on the air conditioning means a higher energy bill, which some employees may not be able to afford.
  • An adjustment plan for new and returning workers. A lack of acclimatization has proven to be a major factor associated with worker heat-related illness and death.12

Employers should also ensure healthcare access for vulnerable populations. Many heatwave- related illnesses like heat stroke are acute, so the availability of adequate and immediate medical care is important. Employers should establish a monitoring program for early identification of signs that may be related to heat-related illness. This program should include a plan for monitoring workers on the job. Using data and analytics, employers can identify which employees are most vulnerable based on factors such as pre-existing conditions and location. They can then take extra action to ensure these people are protected.

Employee benefits are another way companies can better support employee health, safety and wellbeing. Offerings could range from financing to access efficient heating and cooling systems like heat pumps, to financing for energy costs themselves, especially if workers are hybrid and working from home.

Employers can also have a significant impact on the communities in which they operate. Positive investments in activities like regreening urban communities can not only help combat extreme heat and urban heat islands, but it can also help bring employees and community members together.

Global Climate Issues Warrant Global Solutions

While policies around medical care and heat-related illness are vital, employers and employees in areas not traditionally affected by heat could take a lesson or two from other parts of the world, where extreme heat is common. Some workers in India, South America and other regions, for example, work a split shift, with much of the workday taking place before the sun rises and later in the evening when it cools14. Other adaptations can include developing indoor spaces to take advantage of air flow, wearing light-colored, loose-fitting clothing (rather than wearing less), and keeping a damp cloth covering the neck — an important spot for temperature regulation in the body.


July 3-9 2023 was the first 7 day period ever to have a global average daily surface temperature exceeding 17˚C (62.6˚F)

Source: Copernicus Climate Change Service ERA5 data

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Companies need to adapt and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through sustainable transitions of their business models. They also need to create adaptation plans across locations — especially places that haven’t historically dealt with heatwaves.

Madeleine Catzaras
ESG People Solutions, Health Solutions, Europe, the Middle East and Africa

A Warming Climate Demands Better Decisions

There are many impacts a changing climate will have on organizations and their workforce resilience — from understanding and mitigating risks to business operations and addressing the health, safety and wellbeing of their people. A principal point to remember is that human activity, especially through the use of fossil fuels, is driving the accumulation of heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere. This then accelerates climate change, leading to more intense and longer heatwaves. Organizations should not dismiss this truth and continue accelerating their shift away from fossil fuels. Every degree of warming counts, and every action taken now will have an impact on the future and the ability for humans to thrive.

Companies can partner with trusted advisors to address these risks and develop strategies to ensure employees and their families have access to health and benefit coverage that properly protects them from climate-related impacts and illnesses. In the process, they will also adapt and become more resilient to a changing climate that is less predictable. Aon’s risk tools, analytics and modeling capabilities identify where potential risks lie and help organizations anticipate and mitigate the worst impacts of climate on their operations and workforces.

Prepare for the future by shifting the paradigm from reactive to proactive. Indeed, it is this shift that will enable broad adaptation, resilience building and mitigation of climate change for a brighter, more livable future.

Aon’s Thought Leaders
  • Madeleine Catzaras
    ESG People Solutions, Health Solutions, Europe, the Middle East and Africa
  • Janet Faircloth
    Senior Vice President and Thought Leadership Leader, Health Solutions, North America
  • Stephanie Betts
    Global Head of Alliances, Research and Reporting, Aon Climate

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This document is not intended to address any specific situation or to provide legal, regulatory, financial, or other advice. While care has been taken in the production of this document, Aon does not warrant, represent or guarantee the accuracy, adequacy, completeness or fitness for any purpose of the document or any part of it and can accept no liability for any loss incurred in any way by any person who may rely on it. Any recipient shall be responsible for the use to which it puts this document. This document has been compiled using information available to us up to its date of publication and is subject to any qualifications made in the document.

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