Becoming Environmentally Responsible Amid Climate Change

Lawrence Buirse

When the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970 was signed, the priority was to address the alarming rise in work injury and death rates.1 Fast-forward 50 years, and the priorities haven’t changed. What has changed is the range of issues impacting work injury and death rates. For example, musculoskeletal disorders and bloodborne pathogen exposures have become prevalent and costly safety and health concerns in the workplace. But another occupational safety and health concern that has become inherently impactful in recent years is climate change.

Why does climate change matter from an occupational safety and health perspective? Because of the effect climate change has on temperature and air quality, employees working outdoors or indoors with limited climate-control capabilities are more susceptible to heat-related conditions that can lead to poor productivity and higher workers’ compensation costs for businesses. 2

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), rising temperatures trap pollution in the air, which makes breathable air more hazardous. This combination of high heat and polluted air heightens the risk of several health conditions such as heat-related illnesses (e.g., heat exhaustion, heat stroke, etc.), kidney issues, and respiratory ailments (e.g., asthma, cardiovascular disease, etc.).2

Protecting workforces from the adverse health effects of climate change should be top of mind for employers of all industries and sizes. And the seriousness of the matter makes it worth reminding companies that failure to adhere to occupational and environmental recommendations outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can result in serious or even fatal consequences.

”OSHA states every year thousands of employees become ill from heat exposure at work — many fatally ill,” said Ronda McCarthy, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACOEM, senior director of medical surveillance services at Concentra®. According to McCarthy, many heat-related illnesses and deaths are preventable.

“Employers should create a written plan to prevent heat-related illness and use the tools located on the OSHA and NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] website as resources,” McCarthy stated.

Prioritizing environmental health and safety

More employers are promoting workplace safety. Through catchy slogans, campaigns, and signage, employers are finding ways to better manage occupational health risks, enhance operational efficiency, and foster a workplace culture of health and safety. But ensuring that a business is environmentally friendly may require a more targeted approach and long-term commitment.

Climate change is a growing issue that is often a focal point during a summer heat wave —  although, it’s important to mention that climate change impacts all seasons.3 Because climate change can cause summer temperatures to rise — thus, increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses — more employees are paying attention to how their employers address this problem.4 And recent data suggests that there could be backlash for employers who fail to prioritize this workforce health and safety issue.

Trends in workforce health and safety attitudes

With greater risks of exposure to environmental hazards, employees are not just looking for employers to do more; they’re taking action if they don’t believe their employers are doing enough. According to a 2023 survey conducted by the Net Positive Employee Barometer, 51 percent of the U.S. workforce stated they would contemplate leaving their job if their company's environmental actions did not align with their values.5 And in case those statistics fail to capture the attention, here’s another alarming figure: 35 percent of survey respondents stated they had already resigned because they felt their former employer’s values did not match their personal values concerning environmental safety or climate change. This trend has been appropriately labeled as “climate-quitting,” and data reveals that millennials and Gen-Z are carrying the torch for this movement. According to the same 2023 survey, 44 percent of millennials and Gen-Z stated they would be willing to resign over environmental health and safety concerns in the workplace.5 As these two generations continue to make up larger segments of the U.S. workforce, their influence will likely demand the attention of employers on the topic of climate change and its impact on workforce health and safety.

Heat stress prevention

Based on data collected since 1850, 2023 was the world’s warmest year on record.6 What’s even more surprising is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been reporting a new record for global temperature highs almost yearly. In fact, the 10 warmest years have all occurred over the past decade according to the NOAA.6 From this data, it’s easy to imagine a continuing trend of record-high temperatures each year.

For employers, this trend should be evidence of the pressing need to implement heat stress prevention programs or modify their existing programs to better monitor occupational health risks associated with climate change. This plan of action should include preventive health solutions designed to measure indicators of environmental pollutants and identify signs and symptoms of health conditions potentially associated with occupational exposure to environmental hazards such as extreme heat (indoor and outdoor). It should also include a heat acclimatization plan for employees to build their tolerance. Heat acclimatization is essential for employees who are new to working in extreme heat and employees returning to work after an absence. Even after missing only one week, an employee can start to lose acclimatization to heat. Full acclimatization can take up to 14 days.8

“OSHA expects employers to ease employees into work through acclimatization to the heat,” McCarthy explained. Dr. McCarthy also stated that nearly three out of every four work-related fatalities associated with heat illness occur during the first week of work.7

“Employers should follow the 20 percent rule,” said McCarthy. “On day one, [the employee should] work no more than 20 percent of the shift’s duration at full intensity in the heat. Increase the duration of time at full intensity by no more than 20 percent a day until the employee has become accustomed to working in the heat.”

Some other recommendations along with applying the 20 percent rule include taking frequent rest breaks and drinking cool water every 20 minutes.7

The role of medical surveillance

Medical surveillance is a hazard assessment to detect early health effects in employees over time who are exposed to potentially toxic and hazardous substances in the workplace. Medical surveillance can be a feedback mechanism to employers on worksite engineering and administrative controls effectiveness. Applying medical surveillance solutions enables employers to evaluate potential occupational hazards. By identifying and understanding the source of a workforce health problem, it’s easier to determine which countermeasures can improve employees’ chances of avoiding health complications.

“Prevention of heat stress in employees is important. Employers should provide training to employees so they understand what heat stress is, how it affects their health and safety, and how it can be prevented,” said McCarthy.

Developing a medical surveillance program

If not mandated, medical surveillance services are strongly recommended by OSHA, which provides general guidance for what components should be included in a company’s service program based on various factors such as industry. Concentra helps employers of all sizes and industries develop a comprehensive medical surveillance program to screen for the early health effects of environmental hazards before a significant illness or injury occurs. Concentra’s medical surveillance services can include biologic monitoring, baseline exams, and periodic exams. Concentra clinicians can perform various medical surveillance screenings and exams to detect early signs of illnesses and take appropriate medical action while any potential health effects are still reversible.

“A medical monitoring program that includes at least baseline and ideally periodic evaluations is essential to assess and monitor employees’ health and physical well-being both prior to and while working in hot environments,” McCarthy explained.

Employers’ response to climate change

Climate change is having a profound effect on the workplace and the workforce, and employees are setting higher expectations for how companies should address the issue in the workplace. To identify occupational hazards exacerbated by climate change, employers must consider medical surveillance monitoring services; this includes employers not regulated by OSHA. These monitoring services help detect potential health issues before medical care is required or exposure levels are above action or permissible exposure limits.

While there are some precautionary measures (e.g., water, shade, rest, acclimatization, etc.) employers alone can take to protect their workforce from extreme heat, more detailed steps are strongly recommended by OSHA. It’s in the best interest of both employers and their workforce to partner with an occupational health care provider to ensure a company’s medical surveillance program meets best practices and compliance standards. Concentra is available to help employers maintain OSHA compliance and medical surveillance program effectiveness. For more information about Concentra’s surveillance screenings and monitoring services, please visit our website.


  1. Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.).
  2. Climate change impacts on health. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2024, May 15).
  3. Climate change indicators: Seasonal temperature. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2023, July 21).
  4. Climate change and heatwaves. (2023, September 27). World Meteorological Organization. 
  5. From Quiet Quitting to Conscious Quitting. 2023 Net Positive Employee Barometer. (February 2023). Paul Polman.
  6. 2023 was the world’s warmest year on record, by far. (2024, January 12). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  7. Prevent Heat Illness at Work. (2021). Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
  8. Protecting Workers from the Effects of Heat. (2023). Occupational Safety and Health Administration.