Air Pollutants Affect the Productivity of Workers

January 07, 2019
Economists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have completed an extensive study which reveals that exposure to air pollution over several weeks is not just unhealthy, it can also reduce employee productivity.
A team of economists from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences discovered that prolonged air pollution in China negatively impacted the productivity of textile factory workers.
Associate Professor Alberto Salvo from the Department of Economics at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and an author of the study, explained, “Most of us are familiar with the negative impact air pollution can have on health, but as economists, we wanted to look for other socioeconomic outcomes. Our aim with this research was to broaden the understanding of air pollution in ways that have not been explored. We typically think that firms benefit from lax pollution regulations, by saving on emission control equipment and the like; here we document an adverse effect on the productivity of their work force.”
The results of this study we on 3 January 2019.
The NUS team, including Associate Professor Liu Haoming and Dr He Jiaxiu, spent over a year gathering information from factories in China. This involved interviewing managers at one dozen firms in four separate provinces, before obtaining access to data for two factories, one in Henan and the other in Jiangsu.
The factories were textile mills, and workers were paid according to each piece of fabric they made. This meant that daily records of productivity for specific workers on particular shifts could be examined. Hence, the researchers compared how many pieces each worker produced each day to measures of the concentration of particulate matter that the worker was exposed to over time.
A standard way of determining the severity of pollution is to measure how many fine particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are in the air. The majority of people living in developing countries are exposed to particle concentrations that health authorities deem harmful. At the two factory locations, pollution levels varied significantly from day to day, and overall they were consistently high. At one location, PM2.5 levels averaged about seven times the safe limit set by the US Environmental Protection Agency, at 85 micrograms per cubic meter.
Interestingly, unlike previous literature, the team found that daily fluctuations in pollution did not immediately affect the productivity of workers. However, when they measured for more prolonged exposures of up to 30 days, a definite drop in output can be seen. The study was careful to control for confounding factors such as regional economic activity.
“We found that an increase in PM2.5, by 10 micrograms per cubic meter sustained over 25 days, reduces daily output by 1 per cent, harming firms and workers,” says Associate Professor Liu. “The effects are subtle but highly significant.”
The researchers remain agnostic about the reasons that explain why productivity goes down when pollution goes up. “High levels of particles are visible and might affect an individual’s well-being in a multitude of ways,” explained Assoc Prof Liu. “Besides entering via the lungs and into the bloodstream, there could also be a psychological element. Working in a highly polluted setting for long periods of time could affect your mood or disposition to work.”
Research on how living and working in such a polluted atmosphere affects productivity is very limited, partly due to worker output being difficult to quantify. One previous study that focused on workers packing fruit in California found a large and immediate effect from exposure to ambient PM2.5, namely that when levels rise by 10 micrograms per cubic metre, workers become 6 per cent less productive on the same day.
That study’s estimate appears large for a developing country. “Laborers in China can be working under far worse daily conditions while maintaining levels of productivity that look comparable to clean air days. If the effect were this pronounced and this immediate, we think that factory and office managers would take more notice of pollution than transpired in our field interviews. Therefore, our finding that pollution has a subtle influence on productivity seems realistic,” Assoc Prof Liu added.
All the data collected in the NUS study are being made open access to serve as a resource for other researchers to accelerate progress in this topic. “This was a key criterion for inclusion in our study,” Assoc Prof Salvo added. “We wanted to share all the information we gathered so that other researchers may use it as well, hopefully adding to this literature’s long-run credibility. We saw no reason why data on anonymous workers at a fragmented industry could not be shared.”
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Ohio UPS Facility Cited for Blocking Exits
OSHA has cited United Parcel Service (UPS) for repeatedly putting workers at risk by obstructing exit routes at its Sharonville, Ohio, distribution center. The company faces $208,603 in proposed penalties.
OSHA inspectors determined that UPS failed to maintain exit routes at multiple facility locations. A roller extension unloader device was permanently located and attached to a belt conveyor limiting the access route, management allowed packages to accumulate in aisles, and some access routes were reduced to just seven inches.
"Failing to maintain required access routes is a serious hazard that can puts workers' safety at risk, especially in an emergency evacuation situation," said OSHA Area Office Director Ken Montgomery, in Cincinnati. "This employer's failure to follow required exit route safety requirements has been cited at other UPS facilities. Maintaining safe, well-marked exit routes must be part of a comprehensive safety and health program at all facilities."
The company is contesting the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Contractor Cited for Exposing Employees to Trenching Hazards
OSHA cited ContractOne Inc. – based in Avon, Colorado – for safety violations following a fatal trench cave-in. OSHA determined ContractOne Inc. willfully failed to use a trench protective system at a residential construction site where employees were installing water lines. The employer failed to conduct regular site inspections to correct potentially hazardous conditions; did not place excavated soil piles a safe distance from trench edges; failed to provide ladders for egress; and failed to utilize appropriate utility locate procedures during trenching operations. The company faces penalties of $57,463.
"This employer's failure to install protective systems contributed to the death of a worker," said OSHA Area Director Herb Gibson, in Denver. "Trenching hazards are well-known, but they can be prevented when the employer meets their legal obligations and takes proper precautions."  
Trenching standards require protective systems on trenches deeper than five feet, and soil and other materials kept at least two feet from the edge of a trench. OSHA has a National Emphasis Program focused on preventing trenching and excavation collapses. The agency also offers a wide range of resources and guidance information including an e-tool for safe excavation and trenching.
Free Radon Detection Kits in Colorado
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is offering free radon test kits this month in an effort to protect Coloradans from a leading cause of lung cancer.
Approximately half of Colorado homes have radon gas levels that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level. In Colorado, radon is estimated to cause 500 lung cancer deaths each year.
Radon gas has no odor or taste, is not visible and occurs naturally in the soil. Radon enters homes and buildings through small openings. The U.S. Surgeon General lists radon exposure as the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. The state Board of Health has declared January as Radon Action Month, and state environmental officials hope residents will take the time to test their homes.
“Testing your home for radon is simple and should be done when all your doors and windows are closed,” said Chrystine Kelley, radon program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “That’s why January is a great time to test, during National Radon Action Month.”
The best way to protect yourself against radon is to test your home. For a free test kit, visit where you can order a kit in English or Spanish.
Homeowners with mitigation systems also can take advantage of this free test kit offer to ensure the system is working properly.
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