Air pollution increases mortality rates, spreads disease, and impairs educational outcomes.
It also makes workers less productive, according to a study from researchers at the University of Singapore.
Maybe it’s the time spent coughing, sitting down to catch a breath, or rubbing eyes to see more clearly, but one thing is clear — employees at two textile factories in different cities in China monitored by the report’s authors accomplished less when air pollution levels rose.
“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,” said Alberto Salvo, co-author of the report and associate professor from the Department of Economics at the University of Singapore. “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 workforce.”
The authors of the report spent a year reviewing how much fabric was being produced at the two factories, records that are meticulously kept for each employee, and then compared it to local data of air pollution.
What they found was strikingly clear — the amount of fabric produced dropped when air pollution levels remained high for days on end.
The overall impact was a roughly 1% decline in productivity. That may not seem like a lot, but for companies of scale, a single percentage point can be a significant drop in revenue.
“High levels of particles are visible and might affect an individual’s well-being in a multitude of ways,” said Liu in a statement. “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.”
To get a better sense of how air pollution affects productivity, the authors said that a more comprehensive study would have to be conducted, preferably across multiple countries and over a longer period of time.
Even still, this preliminary study could provide a necessary corrective throughout the world to the business owners and lobbyists who advocate for environmental deregulation, arguing that it will increase revenue and boost economies more broadly, according to Fast Company.
This report shows that whatever income gains come from weaker regulation could be undermined by the adverse health consequences on employees caused by pollution.
And it’s not just day-to-day productivity levels that are affected by fluctuating pollution. Over time, air pollution can cause respiratory infections, asthma, heart diseases, and more, that can gradually or abruptly diminish a person’s ability to work. One study found that sustained exposure to air pollution decreases cognitive ability. More urgently, more than 7 million people are killed prematurely each year because of air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.
Beyond producing less each day, air pollution can cause employees to miss days at work, go into debt for medical bills, and lose their jobs, all of which can deepen poverty.
All around the world, poverty and contaminated air are linked, with the majority of deaths from air pollution occurring in low- and middle-income countries, and poor neighborhoods in wealthy countries facing more toxic air.
Air pollution is also a symptom of climate change, which could cost the global economy $26 trillion by 2030.
The workers at the two textile factories in China likely don’t need a global report to tell them that air pollution hurts their productivity — they can feel it in their bodies each day.