Background: Climate change has implications for human health and productivity. Models suggest that heat extremes affect worker health, reduce labor capacity, and commodity supply. Chronic health conditions are on the rise internationally. However there is a paucity of direct empirical evidence relating increasing temperatures to both agricultural worker health and productivity.
Methods and findings: We evaluated the relationship between temperature exposure, kidney function, and two measures of productivity-tons of commodity produced and job attrition, of 4,095 Guatemalan sugarcane cutters over a 6-month harvest. We used distributed lag non-linear models to evaluate associations between wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) and productivity of workers with normal or impaired kidney function. The cumulative effect of exposure to a max WBGT of 34°C was 1.16 tons (95% CI: -2.87, 0.54) less sugarcane cut over the next five days by workers with impaired kidney function, compared to exposure to 29°C. Impaired kidney function was associated with premature workforce attrition. Workers starting the harvest season with impaired kidney function were more than twice as likely to leave employment (HR: 2.92, 95% CI: 1.88, 4.32).
Conclusions: Heat extremes may be associated with loss of agricultural worker productivity and employment, especially among those with impaired kidney function. Agricultural workers who develop health conditions, such as kidney disease, are particularly vulnerable in the face of climate change and increasing heat extremes. The resultant loss of employment and productivity has significant implications for global commodity supplies.