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Severe and Prolonged Air Pollution Affects Productivity of Workers

Prolonged exposure to pollutant particles was shown to reduce the output of workers in China.

Research on how living and working in polluted atmospheres 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 rose by 10 micrograms per cubic metre, workers became six per cent less productive on the same day.

In the first-of-its-kind study examining prolonged exposure to air pollution, economists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have revealed that exposure to air pollution over several weeks is not only unhealthy, it can also reduce employee productivity.

The team, including Associate Professor Haoming Liu and Dr Jiaxiu He, spent over a year gathering information from textile mills in Henan and Jiangsu provinces in China.

A standard way of determining the severity of pollution is to measure how many fine particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) are in the air. At one of the two factory location, PM2.5 levels averaged about seven times the safe limit set by the US Environmental Protection Agency, at 85 micrograms per cubic metre.

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.

“We found that an increase in PM2.5, by 10 micrograms per cubic metre sustained over 25 days, reduces daily output by one per cent, harming firms and workers,” says Associate Professor Liu.


The researchers remain agnostic about the reasons that explain why productivity goes down when pollution goes up. “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,” explained Assoc Prof Liu.

The study was published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics[APBN]

Source: National University of Singapore (NUS)