Only 17% of U.S. CEOs are prepared to protect their employees and businesses from the occupational hazards of climate change, which could hurt their bottom line, a recent analysis finds.

Almost 65 million people — half of the U.S. workforce — are exposed to climate-related risks to health, according to an April report from the National Commission on Climate and Health. Growing extreme weather conditions, such as hotter and more frequent heat waves and stronger hurricanes and floods, are fueling employee absenteeism and supply chain disruptions.

As they continue to increase, extreme weather events will be disastrous to the productivity of U.S. workforce, the commission predicts. Extreme heat events already result in the loss of over 295 billion work hours per year worldwide, noted the report, which is based on surveys and interviews with business leaders, public health officials and climate science experts.A fast food worker prepares French fries

Workers in many industries are already being harmed by climate change, according to commission member David Michaels, PhD, MPH, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and former director of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Every worker who has a significant amount of outdoor work is being impacted and will be impacted more,” Michaels told The Nation’s Health. “The biggest sectors are agriculture and construction. Indoor workers as well, because there are a large number of indoor facilities without air conditioning.”

Climate events can cause a wide range of harms to workers. Extreme heat can result in heat stroke, aggravated cardiovascular or respiratory diseases, mental health distress, and more. Beyond physical injuries, storms can fuel waterborne illness and destroy existing infrastructure for food, housing and transportation. Poor air quality, often caused by wildfires, can cause respiratory, cardiovascular and skin conditions.

The effects can mean more missed work, lower productivity and higher health care costs for businesses. About 62% of workers with employer-sponsored insurance have a chronic health condition such as asthma that can be worsened by extreme heat and poor air quality. The physical and mental health of such workers will be even more vulnerable as climate change is exacerbated, said the report.

Workers of color are also at higher risk of experiencing climate-related health impacts, according to Georges Benjamin, MD, APHA executive director and commission member.

“Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander and African American workers are at extraordinary risk. They may work jobs that are either outside or in factories where the environment may not be as conducive,” Benjamin told The Nation’s Health. “Those populations tend to be disproportionately impacted already with chronic diseases — they have more heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease. They don’t do as well when climate change occurs.”

The commission report encourages business leaders to become more prepared for climate change effects on employees and offers recommendations that can protect their bottom lines. For example, every dollar saved in direct health care costs will yield $2.30 for businesses through improved performance and productivity, the authors said.

Photo caption: While outdoor workers must grapple with direct extreme heat, indoor workers employed in fast food or factory positions can work in poorly ventilated buildings that collect heat and have no air conditioning, creating risk for chronic ailments. Photo by Miodrag ignjatovic, courtesy iStockphoto