How severe air pollution affects worker productivity in China

How severe air pollution affects worker productivity in China
© iStock/Drbouz

Economists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have revealed the effects of severe air pollution on worker productivity in China.

The study measured the short-term and long-term changes in worker productivity and the relationship with severe air pollution in factories in China.

At one of the locations studied, PM2.5 levels, a standard way of determining how severe air pollution levels are, averaged about seven times the safe limit set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The socioeconomic effects of air pollution

Air pollution not only affects the health of the population, but can also have socioeconomic implications based on the decreased productivity of workers.

Associate Professor Alberto Salvo from the Department of Economics at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and an author of the study, said: “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. Our aim with this research was to broaden the understanding of air pollution in ways that have not been explored. 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.”

Worker productivity in China

The factories examined in the study were textile mills were workers were paid according to each piece of fabric they made. Daily records of productivity for specific workers on particular shifts were studied based on comparing how many pieces each worker produced per day to the measures of the concentration of particulate matter that the worker was exposed to over time.

Unlike previous literature, the team found that daily fluctuations in pollution did not immediately affect the worker productivity. However, when they measured for more prolonged exposures of up to 30 days, a definite drop in productivity can be observed.

Associate Professor Haoming Liu added: “Labourers in China can be working under far worse daily conditions while maintaining levels of productivity that look comparable to clean air days. If the effect were this pronounced and this immediate, we think that factory and office managers would take more notice of pollution than transpired in our field interviews. Therefore, our finding that pollution has a subtle influence on productivity seems realistic.”

Explaining the potential reasons why air pollution decreases worker productivity, Liu commented: “High levels of particles are visible and might affect an individual’s well-being in a multitude of ways. 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.”

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