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Interview: What does climate change mean for health workers?

The Health and Community Services Union (HACSU) has teamed up with Friends of the Earth and RMIT University for the Climate Impacts at Work project to investigate how climate change is already affecting workers. We interviewed HACSU member Jason about his experiences.

How long have you worked in your industry, and what do you like about your work?

I’ve worked as a mental health support worker and clinician for 3 ½ years.

I’m an occupational therapist, so the main focus of my work is to support people to engage in meaningful occupations and roles that support their wellbeing and recovery. That means I get to work with lots of different people to overcome barriers to occupations and social participation at different levels - from the individual, to the family, to the community, and then bigger picture social and environmental factors. The work is pretty varied and challenging, but also exciting.


How have you experienced climate impacts at work? 

I work in the outer western and northern suburbs of Melbourne. At the height of summer, we frequently have power outages that shut down air con and lighting in our clinics. In those conditions, things heat up really quickly and it can become unsafe to work. 

We do a lot of community outreach, driving, and home visits too, and a lot of people we work with live in poorly insulated, often overcrowded rentals without aircon. 

The clients we work with become more mentally and physically unwell under extreme heat conditions, and this puts huge pressure on our already overwhelmed community care teams and hospitals. During heatwaves, people with psychosis are at increased risk, mental health relapses are more common, and our clients have a much higher risk of heat stroke and hyperthermia compared with the general population.  

I have also noticed that a lot of people are still struggling with trauma from extreme weather events like the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. Younger people I work with experience heightened anxiety and depression about current and future ramifications of climate change. This is more noticeable among young people when they are socially isolated, have family overseas who have been displaced, and don’t have social movements they can connect with to challenge these issues. 

What we tend to see at work is that people experiencing a lot of mental distress don’t see climate change as a separate issue - they see it as entangled with a whole bunch of other issues that affect their lives including housing, employment, bills, visa status, family, and trauma histories.


What concerns you most about climate change?

Well, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about all the disastrous things that are happening and will happen due to climate change - whole parts of the world becoming uninhabitable, storms, fires, droughts, etc. 

These days what I find most concerning is the knowledge that we have what we need to tackle climate change, but there are really economically and politically powerful people blocking the action that’s needed. 


What action do you think employers should take to protect workers from intensifying climate impacts?

There are a lot of significant things employers can do. It’s going to vary so much from industry to industry, and I think unions and workers in different sectors are best placed to know how to protect employees and service users. 

That’s why the FoE Climate Impacts at Work survey is so exciting - we’re getting incredibly valuable information from working people about how climate change is already affecting their work, and their ideas for what can be done about it. 

Some employers in emissions intensive sectors aren’t going to protect workers from climate impacts - they've made huge profits at the expense of people and the planet and want to make even more. I think they need to be nationalised and brought under democratic workers’ control to create a planned and just transition, in order to rapidly decarbonise without throwing workers on the scrap heap. 

I think that to manage the huge impacts that climate change will have internationally, we will need to have a more democratic and planned economy. In the short term, though, employers need to acknowledge the expertise of their workforce in managing climate impacts. This looks like respecting and updating Occupational Health and Safety legislation, modifying duties to reduce heat stress and exposure, and stopping work if this can’t be done. 

Employers can also play a huge role in improving energy efficiency at workplaces, powering workplaces with renewable energy, and electrifying equipment and work processes that currently rely on fossil fuels such as gas. 

The health industry holds a powerful position as both a big employer and provider of many forms of care to communities. This position should be used to generate more conversation about the links between climate change and health, and to take action to protect service users from the health impacts of climate change. 


What would you like to see governments do to tackle climate change?

Governments can set up a legislative frameworks to support climate action and a just transition. I think people employed in the public health sector, employed by the state government, are in a strong position to pressure governments to take strong climate action. Some key general demands we had been developing through discussions with unions and the School Strike for Climate include: 

  • 100% renewable electricity by 2030 under public ownership and control
  • No new fossil fuel projects
  • Phase out coal mining and exports by 2030
  • Jobs guarantee with no loss in pay for all coal and fossil fuel workers
  • Start the electrification of transport
  • Complete the electrification of industry

We also need to begin knowledge sharing technology and resources to support other countries that are industrialising to leapfrog fossil fuel development and accelerate uptake of renewable energy. Governments overseas that have taken up these kinds of policies have been extremely popular, as seen in Spain.

Listen to Friends of the Earth's Dirt Radio podcast interview with HACSU member Hannah and HACSU organiser Fiona about the impacts of climate change on health workers.

Health workers can take the Climate Impacts at Work survey through this link until Sunday April 3.

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