By Claudia Caruana
[NEW YORK] Exposure to air pollution over several weeks is not just unhealthy but can also reduce employee productivity, says an independent study conducted in China by economists from the National University of Singapore (NUS).
China and India have the largest numbers of people exposed to a ‘double burden’ of outdoor and household pollution, according to the State of Global Air report released in 2018 by the US-based Health Effects Institute. In 2016, 416 million in China and 560 million people in India were estimated to be exposed to indoor pollution, the report said.
Haoming Liu, researcher at NUS and an author of the study, published this month (January) in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, says China was selected for the study because it is the second largest economy in the world and has broad, day-to-day variation in air pollution levels.
“Levels of particle pollution in parts of India often exceed those in north China, and the same can be said of urban areas elsewhere in Asia at several points of the year. (So) our findings for China should translate to other regions in the developing world,” Haoming says.
“Pollution regulations are often considered taxing by managers, perceived to hurt their business interests, and they often lobby policymakers against these controls. We point out that cleaner air can improve the quality of a firm’s work force, a key input to production.”
Alberto Salvo, National University of Singapore
The NUS researchers spent more than a year gathering information from two textile mills, one in Henan and the other in Jiangsu, where workers were paid according to each piece of fabric they made. Daily records of productivity for specific workers on particular shifts were examined as also concentration of particulate matter they were exposed to over time.
The researchers found that daily fluctuations in pollution did not immediately affect the productivity of workers but when measured for prolonged exposures of up to 30 days, a definite drop in output was seen.
Alberto Salvo, faculty at NUS and an author of the study, says the aim of the study was to broaden the understanding of air pollution. “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.”
Salvo adds: “Pollution regulations are often considered taxing by managers, perceived to hurt their business interests, and they often lobby policymakers against these controls. We point out that cleaner air can improve the quality of a firm’s work force, a key input to production.”
“More broadly, our research looks beyond the mortality impact of air pollution on vulnerable members of the population, such as the elderly and infants,” says Salvo. “In our setting, an otherwise healthy worker being less productive on the job is a potentially widespread manifestation of the morbidity effect of exposure to air pollution.”
Lawrence White, an economics professor at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University, calls this work “another sophisticated, well-researched article in a long line of research that stretches back over five decades, showing the adverse consequences of ambient air pollution — in this case fine particulates.”
White notes that much of this category of research “has focused on the adverse health consequences. This shows that there are also short-run (though not immediate) adverse consequences for factory output/production that seem to be linked to the effects of the air pollution on the employees at the two textiles firms in China that are studied.”
Although the adverse effects are modest (at one per cent), they are statistically significant, says White.