Climate change health guide helps businesses and workers

Photo of Brett Perkison
William B. Perkison, M.D., M.P.H.

HOUSTON – Health hazards associated with climate change are becoming an increasing concern to business leaders who want to protect their workers and communities from these emerging threats. As a result, researchers at the UTHealth School of Public Health are developing guidelines for occupational medicine physicians to adapt employers’ current health and safety programs in order prepare for these changes.

William B. Perkison, M.D., M.P.H., is an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health and also a member of the school’s Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health and the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research. He is the lead author of an article on this subject in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The article, titled, “Responsibilities of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Provider in the Treatment and Prevention of Climate Change-Related Health Problems,” was published in the February 2018 edition of the journal. The article has also been endorsed by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine as an official guidance document from the college on the subject of climate change.

The article provides guidance on ways employers can keep their workers safe by adapting both clinical practice and workplace policy to account for emerging health threats due to climate change. These include:

  1. Modifying heat stress protection work protocols to account for higher and more prolonged seasonal average temperatures
  2. Awareness of the deterioration of air quality due to increasing daily temperatures and its effects on employees, particularly those who suffer from underlying chronic respiratory disease
  3. Increasing incidence, severity, and duration of symptoms experienced by employees suffering from allergy related symptoms
  4. Disaster preparation and management
  5. Mental health of victims of natural disasters and first responders
  6. Changing frequency of infectious disease vectors related to climate change

Occupational Medicine physicians are medical specialists who are focused on the injuries and illnesses that are specific to a certain workforce population.

“In the field of petroleum gas refining, occupational medicine physicians have experience with treating musculoskeletal injuries sustained from climbing distillation towers, cases of heat stress from working outside in hot, humid environments, and knowledge of side effects from exposures to unscheduled petrochemical releases at the plant” says Perkison. “We also have the knowledge of how to incorporate lessons learned from previous events to create preventive programs to avoid future injuries and illness.”

“Understanding the threats posed by changing temperatures and weather patterns helps us to adequately prepare for the future,” he continued. “This position statement can be cited by occupational physicians in order to justify the need to update new medical protocols to adequately meet emerging threats. Our workgroup that produced this paper has elected to continue to meet regularly and we are producing a series of follow up articles that go into more depth on each of the subjects we discuss in our paper.”

UTHealth School of Public Health has three physicians on its faculty whose specialties include board certified occupational and environmental medicine: one is Perkison, and the others are George Delclos, M.D., Ph.D., and Arch “Chip” Carson, M.D., Ph.D. There are about 4,000 physicians who are certified nationwide.

To read the full report and see a list of co-authors, visit the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine here.

— Written by Shannon LaDuke