Study: Dirty Air Linked To Lower Worker Productivity

Prolonged exposure to pollutant particles takes a toll on the productivity of workers in China, research shows.

AsianScientist (Jan. 10, 2019) – Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have found that air pollution is associated with lower employee productivity. They published their findings in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.

In cities where industrial activity and vehicular traffic is high, air pollution can become a major health hazard. 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. Many people living in developing countries are exposed to particle concentrations that health authorities deem harmful.

Although the damage to health from chronic exposure to high PM2.5 levels is well known, the impact of air pollution on economic productivity is less understood. Hence, scientists led by Associate Professor Alberto Salvo of NUS 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 they surveyed 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. The researchers were thus able to quantify productivity in relation to measurements of PM2.5 concentration exposure over time.

Unlike previous literature, the team found that daily fluctuations in pollution did not immediately affect the productivity of workers. However, when they measured for prolonged exposures of up to 30 days, they noted a significant drop in worker productivity. 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 one percent, harming firms and workers,” said Associate Professor Liu Haoming of NUS. “The effects are subtle but highly significant.”

However, the exact reason for lower worker productivity remains an open question, the researchers said.

“High levels of particles are visible and might affect an individual’s well-being in a multitude of ways,” explained 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.”

The article can be found at: He et al. (2018) Severe Air Pollution and Labor Productivity: Evidence from Industrial Towns in China.


Source: National University of Singapore.
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