Global Agriculture Loses Billions of Working Hours to Heat, Study Says

New research shows that billions of working hours have been lost to excessive heat globally. The trend will accelerate in the next decades as the planet warms.
Dec 22, 2021 9:49 AM EST
Paolo DeAndreis

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More than 675 bil­lion labor hours are lost every year because of exces­sive heat and humid­ity, accord­ing to a new study from the Institute of Physics, a non-profit.

The research con­firms pro­jec­tions of annual labor losses way higher than pre­vi­ously esti­mated, equal to 1.7 per­cent of global (GDP).

According to sci­en­tists, those losses mostly impact agri­cul­ture and con­struc­tion but affect many dif­fer­ent sec­tors.

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Globally, the pro­duc­tiv­ity loss related to exces­sive heat tops 2.1 tril­lion in pur­chas­ing power – the value of cur­rency in terms of the num­ber of goods or ser­vices one unit of money can pur­chase. They added that 10 per­cent of the pro­duc­tion capac­ity is lost to unbear­able out­door work­ing con­di­tions.

According to researchers, about 30 per­cent of those losses could be recov­ered by shift­ing work hours and hav­ing them resched­uled dur­ing cooler hours of the day. Still, the effects of such adap­ta­tion mea­sures will reduce as global tem­per­a­tures con­tinue to rise.

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In the last four decades, heat-related labor losses increased at least nine per­cent, a trend that demon­strates how even small changes, as low as a 0.5 ºC rise in aver­age global tem­per­a­tures, might impact labor pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Another study, pub­lished in Nature Communications, shows how lost pro­duc­tiv­ity is directly related to increased warm­ing and that fur­ther adap­ta­tion mea­sures are needed to cur­tail losses and ensure worker safety in essen­tial sec­tors of the econ­omy.

The globe has warmed over the last sev­eral decades. Humid heat expo­sure has increased and labor has already been impacted,” Luke Parsons, a post-doc­toral asso­ciate and lec­turer at Duke University and co-author of both stud­ies, told Olive Oil Times.

It is pos­si­ble to esti­mate labor losses due to humid heat expo­sure over about the last 40 years, and how these losses have changed in var­i­ous regions,” he added.

Heat and humid heat rep­re­sent poten­tially dan­ger­ous con­di­tions for out­door work­ers as high tem­per­a­tures cou­pled with high humid­ity ham­per the body’s abil­ity to cool through sweat­ing.

That means that farm­ers and many other work­ers must often slow down their work and hydrate, or even stop work­ing and move to cooler loca­tions to allow the body tem­per­a­ture to grad­u­ally come down.

More than 70 per­cent of the global work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion – about four bil­lion peo­ple, accord­ing to researchers’ esti­mates – cur­rently live in envi­ron­ments where heavy labor losses due to humid heat exceed 100 hours per per­son per year.

Our labor loss esti­mates are lim­ited to work­ers in agri­cul­ture, fish­eries, forestry and con­struc­tion, but these sec­tors rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of the over­all work­force in many regions, with approx­i­mately 69 per­cent of work­ers in low-income coun­tries work­ing in agri­cul­tural and other pri­mary-sec­tor occu­pa­tions,” the researchers wrote.

Workers in many loca­tions are already stop­ping labor in the hottest part of the day because it is too uncom­fort­able to work or local reg­u­la­tions require work to halt if it becomes too hot,” Parsons added.

Rescheduling labor to the cooler parts of the day is one poten­tial adap­ta­tion strat­egy,” he said. However, we show that as the globe warms, the coolest hours of the day also get warmer, so this adap­ta­tion strat­egy becomes less effec­tive with each degree of global warm­ing.”

The focus of our research was not on other adap­ta­tion meth­ods, but [those] can include ade­quate worker hydra­tion, rest breaks in the shade, dif­fer­ent types of cloth­ing that pro­tect work­ers from the sun or allow them to cool them­selves more effi­ciently, mech­a­niza­tion of labor, move­ment of the most inten­sive tasks to cooler hours of the day, mov­ing work that exposes work­ers to direct sun to the shade and acclima­ti­za­tion to heat,” he con­tin­ued.

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According to the researchers, labor pro­duc­tiv­ity losses due to work rate reduc­tions might amount to €250 bil­lion to €275 bil­lion per year glob­ally.

Most of these losses occur in low to mid­dle-income coun­tries, at lat­i­tudes where agri­cul­ture and con­struc­tion work­ers often find them­selves work­ing in unsafe con­di­tions.

In the com­ing cen­tury, human-dri­ven warm­ing of the planet will push many low-lat­i­tude regions even fur­ther into uncom­fort­able and unsafe con­di­tions for out­door labor, with heat expo­sure increas­ing rel­a­tively lin­early as a func­tion of global tem­per­a­tures,” the researchers wrote.

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The research shows how the largest per-capita labor losses occur in Qatar, with 354 hours lost per per­son com­pared with the global aver­age of 81 hours lost per per­son from 2001 to 2020.

The study pro­jected that losses in Qatar will con­tinue increas­ing more quickly than the global aver­age for each degree Celsius of tem­per­a­ture rise. With an increase of just 1 ºC, the global aver­age would grow to 134 hours per per­son with Qatar’s losses spik­ing to 530 hours per per­son.

Humid heat expo­sure and asso­ci­ated poten­tial heavy labor losses have increased across south­ern North America, much of Central and equa­to­r­ial South America, equa­to­r­ial Africa, Southwest Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and parts of Oceania,” Parsons said.

The research shows how the global aver­age loss would reach 212 hours per per­son with a 2 °C rise and 457 hours with a 4 °C rise.

To bet­ter under­stand new chal­lenges asso­ci­ated with the impacts of heat on labor loss, the sci­en­tists said more research needs to be done.

Although humid heat expo­sure and its impacts on worker pro­duc­tiv­ity are impor­tant, our knowl­edge of how work­ers in spe­cific loca­tions and sit­u­a­tions respond to heat expo­sure is lim­ited,” Parsons said.

The Duke University researcher also stressed how cur­rent data used by many researchers rely on past stud­ies of agri­cul­tural work­ers and min­ers that mea­sured how much work pro­duc­tiv­ity was lost when work­ers were exposed to var­i­ous lev­els of heat and humid­ity.”

The scale and dis­tri­b­u­tion of the impacts of humid heat on labor loss indi­cate sig­nif­i­cant risks to the resilience and well-being of out­door work­ers, as well as the fam­i­lies that rely on these work­ers for their liveli­hood,” the sci­en­tists con­cluded. The abil­ity of work­ers to earn incomes in safe work envi­ron­ments is impor­tant for tack­ling global poverty, address­ing house­hold cli­mate resilience and for national eco­nomic devel­op­ment.”





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